So let’s imagine you decide to book a table at your favourite restaurant. And the conversation went something like this.
You: “I’d like to book a table for two, for dinner tonight.”
Restaurant: “No problem sir. But I will need to take a deposit of $100 to hold the table.”
You: “Oh, that’s strange. Well, I really like your restaurant, it’s the best in town, so that’s fine. I’ll get my credit card details to you right now. Presumably the $100 will come off my bill?”
Restaurant: “Erm, only if you end up eating here tonight, yes it will. You see, we have a bit of a waiting list.”
You: “That’s fine. So I guess you will just refund the money if I don’t get a table.”
Restaurant: “No sir. We will keep it, regardless of whether we can give you a table or not. We will call you later this evening to let you know if you did get a table, but if you didn’t, that money is kept as part of our booking registration fee.”
This scenario would be absurd, yes? You would laugh out loud at such a ridiculous idea, and probably never eat in that restaurant again.
Except this is exactly what goes on – not in restaurants, but the private education sector. As some readers will know, private schools in the UAE now regularly charge well over $100 for the mere privilege of registering your child for a place. They keep the cash, come what may – regardless of whether a place in the school is secured.
The UAE’s most successful education provider is GEMS. It is also highly successful when it comes to non-refundable registration fees. According to its own website, five of its Dubai schools now collect a non-refundable $136 at the time of registering: Dubai American Academy; Jumeirah Primary School; Royal Dubai School, Wellington International; World Academy and Jumeirah College.
Another eight GEMS schools across the UAE will also take cash off you for the privilege of registering your child.
I asked GEMS what the waiting lists were at many of these fine schools and they were not forthcoming. Having made some calls, it is not unreasonable to assume that all the schools I have listed above are hugely popular: far more children are registered than get places. Even if we assumed just 50 parents were unsuccessful in getting places at each of the five schools in Dubai that charge $136 to register, that means GEMS is banking over $40,000 a year – for registering.
Am I missing something here? Are there loads of forms that need to be filled in and processed? It would appear not, as GEMS now accepts registrations online.
So what happens to the $40,000? (assuming that is the correct figure – and I happy for GEMS to correct me here). Can anyone tell me?
Now I know that GEMS is not alone in this practice – many other schools now do the same. They have all read the Ministry of Education by-law Article 52, Clause 2, which allows them to do just this.
But, rather like always driving at the speed limit, is it really necessary? Given most parents need to register in at least three schools to be sure of a place for their child, that’s close to $400 just on registering. Call me old-fashioned, a troublemaker or just plain tight – I just don’t think it’s right.
Nobody has done more for the UAE’s private education sector than GEMS. Since opening 'Our Own English School' in Dubai in 1968, the company’s founder Sunny Varkey has rightly become one of the most successful and respected businessmen in the world. His schools are excellent, and he has raised the standard of private education in the UAE and other countries to new heights.
Right now he serves 100,000 students in 125 countries from three continents. His goal, to reach five million students by 2024 is ambitious but, given his leadership, doable.
I hope he gets there. But as the leading voice for the industry, I also hope Mr Varkey takes a lead on this issue and scraps the practice of non-refundable registration fees.
Over to you, GEMS.
Official response from GEMS
GEMS wish to make clear that the processing of registrations also includes making assessments on applicants. This is conducted by GEMS staff so the registration fee supports the payment of that assessment. The fee also goes towards the time taken to process the payment of fees. Parents can register online but do not pay online.
GEMS complies fully with MoE regulations on registration fees and in doing so, our schools often have to turn away genuine requests for places because they are holding places for parents who have registered across multiple schools. This does not only effect GEMS schools but all schools across the UAE. Each year schools have parents who register for a place but then don’t take that place up. Often schools are only aware of this when a registered student does not appear. In the meantime staffing and resourcing have been created based on these registrations.