x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Regulatory balance for private schools

As the case of the Westminster School in Dubai illustrates, education cannot be left entirely to free-market forces.

The letter addressed to the Dubai Knowledge and Human Development Authority was unequivocal: schools will close unless tuition is increased.

"Fee increases granted in the last three years for these schools have been far too little to absorb fully the increasing operating costs," wrote Sunny Varkey, the chairman of the Dubai-based Gems school operator. By refusing to allow fees to increase, Mr Varkey argued, education officials "challenge the very existence of these schools that have served the community for over four decades".

That letter was written in March 2010 regarding several Dubai schools. Nearly three years later, Gems is making an almost identical argument about the Westminster School in Dubai, which may close in 2014. As The National has reported in the past two weeks, education authorities will only allow a 3 per cent increase in school fees because Westminster was only rated "acceptable" in each of the last four KHDA inspections.

For Gems and nearly 5,000 pupils at Westminster, it's a chicken-and-egg problem. How can a school improve if it cannot raise fees? But why should it keep raising fees if it cannot meet a higher standard?

Education is expensive, and private education even more so. The dilemma in this country is that most of the expatriate community and many Emiratis rely on private education - much of it provided by for-profit companies such as Gems, which obviously will not continue to operate if they are losing money.

But it is parents and their children who are the first concern. Regulators have a legitimate role to intervene - even in private schools - to help to ensure standards of quality and a reasonable fee structure, not to mention basic health and safety in the school environment.

Some parents may be willing to pay more, out of loyalty to a school or to avoid having to find new school spots. Other parents, commenting in the Letters today, say a doubling of fees is not the solution by itself; instead, authorities, parents and Gems should negotiate a new deal.

Gems raised this issue almost three years ago, and clearly it has not gone away. In looking at Westminster and other schools, the KHDA might want to consider more flexibility in allowing fee increases.

Nonetheless, education cannot be left entirely to free-market forces. Just as in health care, there is a significant public interest at stake.