Hike in school fees shake domestic budgets
DUBAI — While UAE residents are already reeling under pressure from increasing house rents, high fuel costs, rising medical fees, transport, electricity and water charges, spiralling education cost is now emerging as another major concern for families — both in the low and high income groups.
The household budgets have taken a severe beating with parents blaming lack of proper government controls and subsidies in the education sector. In addition, mushrooming of 'upmarket' schools and the recent ban on expatriate children from studying in public schools have also contributed to the high tuition fee phenomenon in the country.
Parents complain that “education is now being run like a commercial business enterprise. The high tuition fees no more justify the services offered at schools and the erratic fee hike imposed each year by private schools is adding up to the family’s financial burden.”
Besides, most upcoming private schools are international schools catering to the top segment of society, leaving the low and middle-income group families with little choice, but to enrol their children in these schools at high costs.
Noted Iftikhar Hussein, a Dubai-based parent: “If the Ministry of Education fails to check the escalating cost of education and reviews its policy on fees control, a large number of children, particularly expatriates, will either be forced to stay home without proper schooling or return to their countries.”
Shakuntala Nair, another parent, blamed local authorities for treating educational institutions on par with commercial establishments levying high service charges for staff visa, work permits in addition to high licence fees, steep rents for building, cost of land, among others.
“If these charges are subsidised for schools, the overheads of a school are likely to undergo a drastic reduction, bringing down the fees,” added Shakuntala.
Acknowledging the views echoed by parents, school managements say they are helpless and are forced to raise the tuition fees periodically to offset the increasing infrastructure cost as well as the cost of hiring and retaining experienced teachers which make up for 80 per cent of the school's operational expenses.
Hugh MacPherson, COO of Global Education Management Systems (Gems) which manages a growing network of nearly 60 high quality international schools around the world, said: “We cannot compromise on quality of education.”
“Everybody is conscious of the cost of various services going up i.e. rents, fuel cost, visa and medical fees, etc; and its impact is clearly felt on all sectors, whether business or otherwise,” he said, adding that factors affecting a school's operational costs include recruitment and retention of staff, rent of land, and construction costs.
“Schools are no different as employers have to cope with the increasing infrastructural costs and offer attractive remuneration packages to teachers and staff to ensure that quality is not compromised,” MacPherson explained, admitting that 'upmarket' schools are on the rise in Dubai, following big demand.
The demand for such schools currently exists, with education-conscious expatriate families arriving on better salary packages, he said, adding that in order to maintain quality, upmarket schools have no other choice but to charge high tuition fees.
Melissa Jarvinen, Marketing Manager, Beacon International — a recent entrant into the private education sector in the UAE — also justified the high fees of private schools catering to the top and middle-income groups: “Premium education is available at a cost and we cannot ignore the new set of market challenges in the UAE.”
“Private schools in the UK or in Asia charge anywhere from $15,000 to $40,000; and since everything is very comparative in the region, we try to offer similar education quality here at fee structures equivalent in dirhams,” said Melissa Jarvinen.
About 16 new private schools opened in Dubai last year, and a majority of them are upmarket schools offering fees ranging from Dh20,000 upwards, Melissa disclosed, explaining: "We focused on setting up upmarket schools first because we wanted to establish ourselves as a good education provider. Besides, the returns are good on high investments in premium schools.”
Dr Hanif Hassan, Minister of Education, however, assured that the ministry will spare no efforts to protect parents from being exploited by some private schools, charging astronomical tuition fees.
''The upcoming period will see drastic changes not only in terms of fees but also in academic accreditation and classification of schools on the basis of the services offered," he said.
“Several changes will be made in the regulations which would be announced in due course of time,” Dr Hanif Hassan said, admitting that some private schools are actually charging high fees, while the fees charged by others — at Dh6,000 a year— fall within the reach of middle income parents.
Juma Al Salami, Assistant Under-Secretary for Private Education, explained that the ministry is currently applying stringent criteria to restrict the annual increase of fees to once in three years only.
He agreed that new schools are charging astronomical fees due to lack of regulations. ''Fees should be calculated in the light of all real costs of school from land, building, services, salaries to spendings on each student,” he said, adding that the academic accreditation and classification of schools will soon handle and tackle these issues.
He admitted that if expatriate students were allowed enrolment in government schools, it would ease pressure on private schools and the demand for these schools would decline, resulting in the index of fees taking a dip in the future.
Mahmoud Khamis, Chief of the Licence Department at the ministry and also the head of the evaluation committee for private schools, was quoted recently as admitting that the current education standard had its shortcomings. “Therefore, a memorandum has been raised to add new standards and criteria for the Ministry of Education in this regard,” he added.
Mushrooming of 'upmarket' schools, recent ban on expats to study in public schools and absence of ministry regulations on fee policy have also contributed to the high tuition fee phenomenon.Factors affecting operational costs of a school include recruitment and retention of staff, rent of land and construction costs.