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Tue 15 Jan 2013 10:31 AM

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The scandal of UAE school fees

Anil Bhoyrul argues that UAE schools are earning thousands of dollars for doing absolutely nothing

The scandal of UAE school fees
(Image for illustrative purposes).

I am used to losing money, in fact I am quite good at it. Clothes I don’t need, food I can’t eat, gadgets I don't really want, even holidays I knew deep down I would hate.

But each time, no matter how big the loss, I have been able to comfort myself with the small fact that it has been entirely my own fault. Nobody has tried to pull a fast one over me.

Until, that is, I decided to apply for my three-year old son to join a UAE school. From school to school, I have been given the runaround – and ultimately, I have had money taken from me which I will never see again. If it happened in any other industry, it would be a national scandal. Yet for some reason, the education sector appears to get away with it without anyone blinking an eyelid.

Before I delve into the wider issues, here is a brief summary of my own experience (one I know that is being shared by thousands of parents across the country). When my son was less than a year old, in October 2010, I applied for him to join various schools in Dubai. The plan was he would start in September 2013, but given the high demand for places, I was told to apply many years in advance, and to several different schools.

Easy enough, except this comes with a catch: almost every private school in Dubai charges a registration fee, purely for the privilege of applying to join. The amount is often as high as AED500 (US$136). But regardless of whether you get a place or not, you never get this money back - it is, I was told, part of processing fee.

One of the schools I applied to is one of the most prestigious in Dubai, which has had nothing less than “outstanding” ratings by the KDHA. They told me back in October 2010 that I was one of the first parents to apply for a place and so had a good chance. They asked me for the AED500 in cash, which I handed over. I also handed over similar amounts to various other schools.

Nearly three years on, not a single of the schools I applied to has come back with an offer of a place. Not one has even bothered to tell me I don’t have a place. I rang the school above with the “outstanding” ratings last week, and after several emails and phone calls, eventually got through to the registrar.

“Ah yes, sorry, we only had 80 places this year and 70 of those went to siblings, so you didn’t get a place,” she told me.

Was the school ever going to bother letting me know, I asked?

“No,” she said. “We only tell you if you have a place.”

Strange I wasn’t told this in October 2010 when the school was only too happy to take my cash. But given the school has not even bothered to email me once, and it appears I never had chance of a place there, what was my AED500 spent on?

“So I can answer the phone to you,” the school told me, before adding: “Wages have to be paid.”

Really? Is that what we have come to? A school in the UAE, in 2013, charges AED500 to answer the phone? What incredible arrogance. Who do these people really think they are? Estate agents?

Let’s say, for example, that 500 other parents applied for a place without success? That would equate to a staggering AED250,000 (US$68,000) for doing absolutely nothing. Oh, sorry, for answering the phone. How much are private schools making across the UAE by charging these fees? I know for a fact that many schools have literally hundreds of children on the waiting list, having collected AED500 from each one. The figures could run into millions of dollars each year.

I have spoken to many other parents and many have forked out around AED2,500 in application fees  - and most have been unsuccessful in getting any place. We have been told that most places are already taken by companies, preference given to siblings, or anyone with good connections. Did you send your kid to a nursery also owned by the same school? If not, tough luck, thanks for the cash.

I know of one parent who has a receipt for one school showing that back in 2010 when she made the application, she was third in the queue. Yet three years on she hasn’t secured a single place for her child. Like me, she has thrown thousands of dirhams in the dustbin. But where did all this cash go? Are schools really claiming that it costs AED500 to process an application for a place that probably never existed in the first place? How much can it cost to enter someone’s details on a computer, and then not have to bother calling them three years later?

If, however, schools want to hide behind the KHDA guidelines and claim they are legally entitled to taking this money (which they are), then they need to be transparent about what is happening to the money: exactly what did they charge AED500 for? How big was the original waiting list? If there was never a chance of getting a place, why are schools still taking the money?

What the schools are doing is completely wrong. They should refund all the money to parents who do not get a place, and they should refund it now. 

* I rang the school in question above and they have since offered to refund my AED500. I suggest all parents do the same.

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Kamal Tolani 6 years ago

Well Anil, I think you managed to get a refund because you can actually hurt the school's image by naming it on a public forum. People like us who are not in the media industry will have to take the hit and carry on. Its sad that KHDA does not do anything about this because they seem to be at the mercy of the schools too.

ZeTallGerman 6 years ago

Am currently 7 months pregnant with my first child. I've lived and worked in the UAE for the past 15 years. And my husband and I already decided years ago: no child of ours will go to school in the UAE... for numerous reasons (some of them mentioned in your article). So now the clock is ticking ; in max. 3 years we are out of here. There is now way we are letting the KHDA play games with us, schools charging us ridiculously high fees for an education that - let's face it - is regarded as sub-standard in comparison to most schools in other countries. Others have already pointed out numerous times: for the fees we pay for a "regular" primary school in Dubai you could send your child to a top-class boarding school in Europe. So, bye bye Dubai. Not with us.

Alex 6 years ago

Indeed an outrageous situation and just wait to see the fee structure as they go through to GCSE years etc, more expensive than a top class University in London...

2kool4skool 6 years ago

I wish they paid me to rant about my personal life.

Ted 6 years ago

Dear Anil,
Why are you not naming the school? It is great that you are highlighting this issue but I wish Arabian Business and you would be brave enough to name schools, parents like us need a voice like you. Nobody else is standing up for us, please Anil , keep this going.
You are also a bit naive. 70 out of 80 children siblings-that is a joke.
My own bad experience was with Kings Dubai: priority goes to siblings, that there is silent affiliation with Child's play and Small world nurseries who have priority after siblings (you might be wondering why that is not published on Kings web page, it might be as the nurseries are not so "outstanding") and than are people with connections and than come people like you (and me last year :) who will stay on top of the list for a year and than be forgotten.
This is my advice to you for a next time: apply for schools with good and not outstanding ratings so you don't end up with no school or really rubbish one.

Althaf 6 years ago

Dear Anil,

Glad you have brought up this subject again . As you mentioned in your article , there are thousands of parents who has been affected by this practice over the years. Almost all the Dubai Schools does it, unfortunately.
I have been through this exercise, luckily I got the school by the grace of the creater of the mankind. (even though the schools are not kind enough).

If a business can make money just for designing and printing of an application form, why not :) KHDA allows it, so they are happy to do it.

Its time Dubai acts, KHDA does not allow the schools to take money from parents more than the available slots , and money returned provided school seat is not given.

What I have noticed is, almost all the schools are profit making business, as GEMS said in their press release for school closure.
(which is disguise to open a new school at the same premise with more price )

Over to you ..

Ella 6 years ago

Great article Anil and I congratulate you for being the only man in the country ready to speak out on this issue. What is happening is disgraceful and parents like me who are not rich cannot afford this any more. You mention that taking the money is legal which it is. But what the schools must provide is transparency. At the time of applying it is important we are told how big the waiting list is, how many siblings have applied and what our chances are. I have spent more than 3000dhs on applications and like you i have got no place. It is an absolute disgrace what schools are doing, please carry on speaking out on our behalf. God bless you Anil.

Ronald 6 years ago

Time to name and shame, and that will bring out the crooks en masse, complaining about unfair treatment in the media.

manesh gurnani 6 years ago

madam, i do agree with u all the way. i myself hv been educated in UK & Swiss. The fees been paid here for child in primary school in Dubai, is equivlant to the same fees for a high school & college in Europe. The standard & quality of education in majority of schools in Dubai is far below average compared to same grade in other third world countries. As i hv told b4 in my many comments relating to education in Dubai, it is pure business, only money making & high salaries to be paid for overseas teachers, which we pay as school fees. All parents should wake up to this & send message to KHDA together.

Isabel 6 years ago

I so much agree with you Anil and also Kamal's view that just because they are aware that you will draw the curtain off this they agreed to pay you, infact just two days ago I got a note from the school that my two kids go to, that if I wish to continue them for the next academic year I need to pay up AED500 per child and this fee is for re-registration, how can they charge me when my child is already attending their school for the past 3 years and will continue! Besides, there is an increase in school fees and transport charges every year, which they mention that the increase is to pay teachers and for better services for the students, which I have failed to see till this date.