Demand growing for international schools in the UAE

While parents are looking for quality and accreditation from prestigious agencies, International School Consultancy Group chairman Nicholas Brummitt says certain government controls are hampering growth.


Muaz Shabandri

Published: Thu 7 Aug 2014, 1:02 AM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 9:48 PM

Sending your children to international schools may not simply be a matter of prestige. Increasingly, parents are looking at sending their kids to schools with international accreditation, ensuring a higher quality of education.

A new global education report by the International School Consultancy Group has revealed an increasing number of international schools is expected to open in Dubai and Abu Dhabi over the next five years.

“The markets in Dubai and Abu Dhabi have grown rapidly during the past decade and further growth is inevitable. Expatriates outnumber local students throughout the UAE by a large margin. Among the seven emirates, Dubai has the highest proportion of expatriates and the highest concentration of international schools, with 98,000 students per million population,” read the report.

In an interview with Khaleej Times, Nicholas Brummitt, chairman of the International School Consultancy Group, highlighted the opportunities and challenges facing investors hoping to capitalise on the growing education market in the UAE. Here are the excerpts:

How do international schools stand apart from their competition?

Top international schools differentiate themselves from their competition through accreditation by one or more of the major, globally recognised accreditation bodies. Accreditation provides assurance that the schools have met high standards of quality and it is a powerful marketing tool. Accreditation can be expensive and is not an easy process. In an increasing number of countries, standards of education at international schools are becoming the subject of government regulation. Accreditation by at least one specified agency is mandatory in some markets including Dubai and Qatar.

There are also several widely recognised and prestigious global and regional international school associations and the top international schools are almost invariably members of at least one of these. These associations confer a certain amount of status, partly because membership is expensive and partly because some associations will accept schools as members only if they are accredited. These associations include COBIS (Council of British International Schools) and AAIE (Association for the Advancement of International Education).

Government authorities heavily regulate fee increases. What are the pros and cons of these regulations?

Governments do exercise control over tuition fees in some markets. In Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, proposed fee increases must be submitted to, and approved by, government bodies before they can be put into effect. This is currently a significant challenge for some international schools in Dubai, which face the possibility of closure as a result of the authorities’ refusal to agree to fee increases. The influence of the Supreme Education Council in Qatar, which directs educational policy, is so significant (complex licensing procedures and teaching licences as well as control of fee increases) that this is now a factor that is being taken into account by investors considering new schools in Qatar. The government in Hong Kong also controls school fees and there many schools impose charges that are additional to tuition fees and which are therefore beyond government control. An example of this is debentures, which have been introduced by some of the leading schools in Hong Kong. The income generated by these charges is used to finance school development or refurbishment programmes.

Fee increases are just one of the ways in which different governments regulate international schools and the controls they apply vary enormously and have a profound effect on the market. Besides control over tuition fees, such regulations include limits that are placed on the enrolment of local children, staff employment legislation, land and planning constraints, and the ownership of schools. When such restrictions are amended, market changes can often be significant as seen recently by the growth of international schools in Malaysia as a result of the relaxing of enrolment restrictions for local children.

Will the UAE continue to see a sustained growth in the number of international schools?

The ISC Global Report says that in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the combination of large expatriate communities and strong demand for international school places from the local population suggests that further growth in the market is inevitable. Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority predicts 7 per cent enrolment growth per annum during the next five years. In Qatar, large-scale infrastructure projects, the development of Lusail city and the increased preference from Qataris for international schools places are all affecting demand and there is already severe pressure on capacity at many schools. More schools are urgently needed here.

What factors contribute to the growth of international schools?

Growth of the international schools market will continue to be driven by many of the same factors that have influenced growth in the last ten years. These include continuing economic growth, continuing movement of labour between countries, the increasing prevalence of English as the language of business, and the increasing number of students aiming for high quality, English-speaking higher education institutions around the world, particularly in the UK and the USA.

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