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Illustration by Gary Clement for The National
Illustration by Gary Clement for The National

The big squeeze: cost of an education in UAE

On the money: The conversation doing the rounds among family and friends is the ever rising cost of already expensive education here in the UAE.

The conversation doing the rounds among family and friends is the ever-rising cost of already expensive education here in the UAE.

As expatriates, our choices are limited, and they include: private schooling here or returning home.

Putting children through private school in the UAE is a major expense.

A recent survey by WhichSchoolAdvisor.com, a guide to schools in the country, found one in five families spends 30 per cent of their monthly income on their children's education. Whether the spend refers to one child or three is unclear, but let's say it's for an average of two children.

Couple that with the creeping cost of housing using up another 40 per cent of earnings, and you start to see the squeeze. And it seems it's going to get worse: real-estate companies such as Jones Lang LaSalle and Cluttons say annual increases in rents and home prices range from 10 per cent to 88 per cent. Salaries, on the other hand, are not budging.

Little wonder then that seemingly well-off upper management types tell me their financial lives revolve around school-fee payments. If they're feeling the pinch, then what hope is there for the majority of expatriates living here?

But, then again, living in the UAE has its perks; there's the weather, the international melting pot, travel and the cosmopolitan existence that many around the world can only dream of. There's also its tax-free status and opportunities for those willing to go the entrepreneurial route. But can you justify being here with three or four children, with no old-style expat package to cover schooling?

Let's decide whether it's worth paying expensive school fees versus going home to state schools:

Tax: How much tax would you pay if you moved home or to the country where your children plan to go to university. Sure, we complain the UAE has hidden taxes that take away from earnings, but if you're in a higher tax bracket, paying 35 per cent or more, it's the equivalent of working for free for over four months a year. Are your children's education fees more or less than your tax bill?

Family life: If it's decided the children should be schooled elsewhere, then do you all go? Or does the breadwinner stay behind? How would this affect family life.

Lifestyle: Let's be frank: most couples have home-help here; you can park close to where you want to get to; you can have experiences difficult to access back home; the weather is fantastic most of the year and your children have a broader view of the world we live in. Whether they learn about budgeting, the value of money and the various other things that many parents refer to as the real world is really down to how you nurture them.

Cost of living: Living in the UAE is not cheap. Dubai has ranked high among the most expensive places to live globally in the past; these days it costs even more to live in Abu Dhabi. But, it does depend on what lifestyle you choose. Many people can get by on a fraction of what they currently spend by looking at the bigger picture and cutting back.

Work out rough figures for the above and then let the facts do the talking. Once you can see what the sums are, you can add your emotional layer on top. What would you really like for your family? Your children? Is it worth it?

But that's not all. You then need to think of tertiary education; some countries will charge higher fees for students not resident in that country leading up to their university years.

To get a better feel for the cost of your decision, you should look into what the regulations are wherever your children plan to study. In other words, figure out what the cost of being an expatriate is when it comes to educating your offspring once they're legally adults. Does it make a difference where you live? Example: if you hold a European Union passport and plan for your child to read at a British university, then she or he should reside in the United Kingdom or anywhere in the EU, for at least three years for purposes other than education (so boarding school doesn't count), to qualify for home status. On the other hand, British nationals are considered overseas students and pay hefty overseas fees if they reside outside of the EU/UK in the period leading up to university entrance.

The bottom line is this: it's estimated that the average cost of putting a child through school in the UAE is Dh250,000. And that's just the fees, which range from less than Dh10,000 a year to hovering alarmingly close to Dh100,000.

Someone I know has four children. She just got notification that the cost for each child will be Dh65,000 per year as of September. That's a whopping Dh260,000 for all four.

So, how to afford all this? Having spoken to various financial advisers, the message seems to be: save money. Sure there are tools and funds you can subscribe to, but you need to save now for the decade or so of annual school fees, as well as for university education, while forking out your current schooling costs. Is this sustainable?

We need to decide what's more important, and what we can let go of. Whatever you decide, get saving - school isn't out until your progeny stand on their own feet, proud and independent.


Nima Abu Wardeh is the founder of the personal finance website www.cashy.me. You can contact her at nima@cashy.me

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