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Mon 30 Mar 2020 02:57 PM

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Why won't UAE schools pay back the fees they already took from parents?

UAE schools have moved to e-learning, but are refusing to discount school fees.

Why won't UAE schools pay back the fees they already took from parents?

Schools that made millions during the boom years now need to dip into their pockets. Image: ITP Media Group

So imagine this. You take your wife and kids to your favourite restaurant for dinner. Not because you love the atmosphere or the staff, who are generally very rude. In fact, it’s massively overpriced. But it’s the only restaurant in town that serves a proper rare steak, and the kids love rare steak. So, you have to go, no choice.

Anyway, half an hour after ordering, the manager comes over to explain that he needs the table back. You need to go home now, and he will send the food to your home with a driver sometime tomorrow. Oh, but because you already ordered, you need to pay the full bill.

It would be outrageous wouldn’t it? Absurd. Beyond comprehension.

Except this is pretty much what’s happening with many UAE schools right now. Since the shutdown a few weeks back and the move to e-learning, thousands of parents have been asking themselves the same question: hang on a minute? I paid an absolute fortune in school fees, for transport, for meals. Why can’t I get any of that money back?

Sadly, I have to tell you the chances are between slim and zero, and slim is outta town. And for one simple reason: when it comes to greed, many UAE schools (not all) have been top of the tree.

If, like me, you are a parent who had no choice but to put your kids into one of the world’s most expensive education systems, you should know this by now. Do you remember having to pay around AED500 just to get your child on a waiting list? If they didn’t get a place, tough luck, the schools kept the money. They gave you a codswallop story about the money being spent on “administrative charges”.

You will be familiar with the ludicrous rates for after school activities (which are free in many countries). But, most of all, you will be familiar with the fees: these often range from $10k a year for the youngest pupil rising to around $23k for Grade 12, in the better schools. If you have three kids, this can average out at nearly $50k a year.

In 2017, an HSBC report said that UAE school fees were the second highest on the planet, with the journey from primary school to university costing $99,378. Only Hong Kong was more expensive. Singapore, the UK, the USA – take your pick for anywhere cheaper.

But the issue is not why school fees are so high – that’s for another day. Right now, parents are having to arrange additional childcare. Many have taken pay cuts. And the UAE government should be applauded for its huge range of measures to help steer companies through the crisis, including a $34bn stimulus package.

Except when it comes to schools (which are companies), not a single one (to my knowledge – and I would be delighted to be wrong) has offered any kind of discount. Term 3 fees are to be paid in full. Zero refund for term 2, which has been cut short.

The schools, when challenged, all have the same standard reply: we are waiting for the KHDA to tell us what to do. But in the meantime, we will carry on charging you the full whack – even for transportation that you don’t use, pools you don’t swim in, gyms you don’t train in, and libraries you don’t study in.

Let’s not pretend otherwise: this is disgraceful. I fully understand that they still have bills and salaries to pay. But come on, those bills are not the same as before. Even if they are, I would argue, that in this unprecedented crisis, everyone is having to make sacrifices. Schools that made millions during the boom years now need to dip into their pockets. Even a 20 percent discount would go a long way.

And who better to kick this off than the world’s most successful education provider, GEMS founder Sunny Varkey? If you check any profile of Varkey, you find plenty to read about his admirable philanthropic work, along with his pal Bill Clinton. In 2014 he set up the $1m a year Global Teacher Prize. The Varkey Foundation has done so much to improve young lives all around the world, and deserves nothing but praise.

Well, how about helping out some parents here in the UAE where Varkey made most of his fortune? Isn’t this the time to do so?

If Varkey took the lead on this – and he said “I am not going to wait for the KHDA to tell me what to do, I am going to independently cut fees” – it would shame all other schools into doing the same. Oh, and while he’s at it, maybe he can refund all parents for the money they spent on school buses that never picked up their kids.

Varkey has had a great career, but this surely is his moment. The time to do something so incredible that will cement his legacy.

The wider point here is that, when this crisis is over, all of us, whatever we do, whatever we earn, will have long memories. There is a strong chance that global economies will have contracted into deflation. We will earn less, but everything will cost less. Consumers will think three times before spending a dollar.

And we will remember which schools were supportive and helpful, and which put their phones on silent. Right now, all are on silent mode.

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