Many families might think that schools are competing only in raising fees, not in raising quality. Despite efforts by authorities to curb the trend, schools continue to charge fees that have only a tenuous connection to the quality of the education they provide. In one case, a private school in Abu Dhabi went so far as to sue the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec) for refusing to approve fees equal to those of another school - partly because it was next door.
For many families, school tuition fees are the most onerous expense in an otherwise relatively high standard of living. In response to Felicity Glover's column in our Personal Finance section, readers wrote in this week not only about high fees, but to question the relationship between price and quality. It is clear that many parents are not seeing the benefits of the high fees that they pay.
And it could be getting worse. As The National reported yesterday, about 30 per cent of private schools in Abu Dhabi have applied for an increase in tuition fees for the next academic year.
Both Adec and Dubai's Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) have taken a step in the right direction by linking schools' proposed fee increases to quality. But it is often not apparent that real improvements have been made. In some cases, schools seem to have deliberately falsified reports about the quality of education; in the lawsuit involving the neighbouring school, Adec told the court that the school's accounts had been misreported to justify the increased fees.
In other cases, fee hikes have been rejected, but schools charge more anyway. Or a school keeps tuition fees level, but forces parents to pay extra for transport or textbooks. In a country where most schools are profit-making operations, there should be a transparent accounting of revenues and expenses to assure parents that fees have some connection to reality.
Education is simply too important to be thrown entirely to free market forces (although experiments in Britain and North America show that some competition can winnow out the poor-performing schools). Parents are often locked into a school for an entire year, and in the present circumstances there is not enough data to make informed decisions anyway.
The Government is not obliged to provide education to the entire expatriate population, but it must hold schools to account. There is plenty of room for reform to balance school expenses and reasonable profits with quality education. In a knowledge-based economy, we cannot afford to give schools a free pass.