Feeling the pinch
For Liz and Dan Waterhouse, moving to Dubai from the UK with their two children seemed like an obvious lifestyle choice. As soon as the ink dried on Dan’s contract, the pair relocated, enrolled their children in a private school and settled in to enjoy their new lives. But Dan’s expat package didn’t include school fees, which have steadily risen since the family arrived.
‘Schooling both our children each year now costs us around Dhs110,000,’ says Liz. ‘It’s definitely becoming a financial burden for us and that’s not what we expected.’
Tuition fees in Dubai are regulated by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA). It was formed by the UAE Ministry of Education, and allowed local municipalities to set fees in their emirates. To keep fees from sky rocketing, the KHDA imposed a cap in 2007. But many parents are frustrated, because internationally accredited, embassy, and not-for-profit schools are exempt. The rationale behind the exception is that not-for-profit schools put surplus funds back into the school, while internationally accredited institutes offer specialised teaching programmes.
Though no one can deny the benefit of attending a school with a high standard of education, many expats are starting to feel the pinch. Dubai parents Maria and Craig Dowling both enjoy well-paid positions, but it costs them around Dhs53,000 to send their son to the Gems-operated Wellington School. ‘The cost of school fees is a terribly controversial subject,’ Maria says. ‘A lot of people get a horrible awakening when they arrive. What looked like a really good package coming from Australia or the UK suddenly doesn’t seem so lucrative anymore.’
Searching for a cheaper alternative is simply not an option for parents like Nandini Gopal, who had to fight to enroll her child in a school with an Indian curriculum. Nandini’s six-year-old daughter attends Dubai Modern School, which teaches an Indian syllabus set by the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations (CISCE).
‘I don’t have a choice because there was only one other Indian School in Dubai outside of the Gems schools – the Indian High School – and Indian parents camp outside the school the whole night to get their children in,’ she says. ‘The reason why we stick to the Indian syllabus is because if we ever go back to India, we don’t want our children to get stuck with an O-level [GCSE]. An O-level won’t help at all
While tuition fees at Indian schools are considerably lower, Nandini still pays around Dhs21,600 annually for school fees, and more for the school bus. She expects to pay even more in the future because Dubai Modern High School has plans to relocate to Nad al Sheba; schools that move premises are granted a waiver from the fee cap. ‘I try to stick to a budget every month because my younger one is just starting nursery now,’ she says. ‘But I just think it’s unfair because our salaries haven’t gone up that much. This is a more high-end school, but that is still no excuse – the school was already unaffordable for most people.’
While Nandini is convinced private schools are able to charge such hefty fees because they have a monopoly over the Indian curriculum, Maria thinks the practise of companies including school fees in generous expat packages is driving up prices even more.
‘Most people in middle- to upper-management positions have their school fees paid for them,’ she says. ‘I genuinely believe that as long as companies keep paying these exorbitant fees, the schools are going to keep increasing them. That’s the market force in any economy.’
Schools like Gems have been quick to defend the hikes, pointing out that fees have always fluctuated with inflation and the cost of living. A Gems spokesperson told Time Out that the cost of recruiting and training highly skilled teachers also justified the fees.
‘Resource material for teachers has become more expensive,’ says the spokesperson. ‘Increasing expenses for providing teacher housing, recruitment fees, travel and insurance also need to be covered by schools.’
However, Gems has maintained that parents are getting what they pay for: ‘By increasing tuition fees, we are able to further develop our in-house training and development programmes for our teachers, which in turn enable them to provide high standards of teaching and learning.’
A similar rationale was offered when Time Out questioned Taaleem Education, which operates six private schools in Dubai, including Mizhar AmericanAcademy for Girls and Dubai British School.
‘Our schools deliver top international curricula for expatriate and local families to choose from; American, British and the International Baccalaureate,’ the spokesperson explained. ‘We have dedicated and professional principals who are strong leaders, and they make the difference in the school environment.’
But some parents think profits are a more likely explanation. ‘I think it’s become a business with these schools, and that the authorities are doing nothing about it,’ Nandini says with a wry laugh.
In 2009, fee increases were tied to the performance of schools; the best able to increase fees by around 16 per cent. However, Mohammed Darwish, the chief of licensing and partner relations at KHDA, was unable to speculate whether the cap might increase again. ‘The maximum allowable rise was set at 16 per cent for ’07/’08 and ’08/’09, and we are still in the consultation phase to come up with a decision,’ Mr Darwish said.
At time of press it was reported that the KHDA had issued an open letter to schools ‘strongly urging’ them not to raise fees during these times of economic uncertainty.
Meanwhile, when asked whether Taleem Education had any plans to increase fees again, the spokesperson replied, ‘We will have to look closely at the economic environment and see what happens. With the global recession we don’t know how long it will last – or how bad it will get.’
Needless to say, this is not the sort of response parents like Liz and Dan want to hear.
‘I don’t think we would consider anything as drastic as leaving Dubai or changing schools, but if the fees continue to rise, it may mean we have to start cutting back on unnecessary spending,’ says Liz. ‘But that’s what you have to do when times are tough.’