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Fri 8 Mar 2019 01:38 AM

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Opinion: how do we solve the UAE's school fees conundrum?

Amid a slowdown in school fees, the high cost of education continues to pose a problem to which no solution has been found

Opinion: how do we solve the UAE's school fees conundrum?
Dubai’s market is now tipped in favour of parents who are seeking quality education at lower price points, according to HSBC

At a recent dinner party, I met a young couple who – despite cushy jobs and a higher standard of living than they’d have in their own country – are pondering whether to go home. The reason? They are hoping for children soon, and anticipating the considerable financial burden that educating multiple children would bring. One imagines that they are not the only ones in a similar predicament. Conversely, many parents contemplating taking jobs in Dubai may think twice when they see what it will cost to send their children to school.

Expat parents are not alone in these views. In 2017, Emaar Group Chairman Mohamed Alabbar made headlines when he said that private school operators “suck the life out of fees”.

Showing the lengths that parents have to go to, statistics from HSBC reveal that 89 percent of UAE parents say they make sacrifices for their child to succeed, while 68 percent say they use money from their day-to-day budgets for school fees. For many parents, or even those like me who are without children, a look at the numbers is mind-boggling. Some schools charge AED80,000 ($21,800)per year in kindergarten, and well over AED100,000 ($27,000) a year for high school.

The education sector is now “a buyer’s market” in which schools are no longer able to dictate terms

As Alabbar famously asked, what human being can afford that? Personally, I find these numbers terrifying. They make me wonder how I’d cope if I had a kid.

This, however, seems to be changing, with school fees dropping amid tough market conditions and fierce competition between educators. For parents, this will come as welcome news.

If, as our feature this week suggests, the education sector is now “a buyer’s market” in which schools are no longer able to dictate terms, people such as my friends may end up staying longer than they may have otherwise. Importantly, those that face the greatest burdens caused by school fees are not highly paid C-level executives. They are the lower level managers and employees that form the lifeblood of companies and the overall economy.

“[The person] who can pay AED50,000 ($13,600)… he can send his kids to school in London if he wishes,” Alabbar said in 2017. “But what about that guy with seven kids who can’t afford to pay even AED 1,000 ($272) for their education? That’s where the pain is.”

However, for many expat families – falling school fees or not – the tuitions here will always be a burden. Much of the responsibility for this rests in the hands of the school operators themselves, which one parent said were “disconnected from reality”.

In the long run, poorly thought through reactions to missed targets, such as sibling discounts and matching fees to corporate allowances, may end up causing more problems than they solve.

As with any business, schools largely compete on quality. It follows that the best teachers, who logically command the best salaries, staff the best schools. If school fees continue to drop, then one wonders whether the same standard of education will be available.

Much of the responsibility rests in the hands of school operators, who are ‘disconnected from reality

“To continually strive to improve quality does not come without a cost,” Rosamund Marshall, CEO of Dubai-based education provider Taaleem says. “To attract excellent teachers, it’s not just the cost of salaries, it’s also other overheads such as housing and health insurance, which can be significant for a school. At the same time, the fee increases are not keeping pace with inflation.”

When then, is the solution to these issues? The question is asked year after year, and like many observers before me, I don’t have an answer. From the sounds of it, neither do most parents nor educators. It is vital, however, that this conversation take place.

Money is not a problem for parents who deck their kids out in Gucci and Prada clothes, as one local nursery revealed.

But for the majority of people who can’t afford to send their kids to school in designer clothes and simply struggle to cover the fees, I hope the future is looking a little bit brighter.

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