x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Even the bus comes with a price tag

Tuition fees have edged ahead but the expense of getting some children to school is further cutting into what parents can reasonably afford.

Tim March helps his son Freddie with his school uniform.
Tim March helps his son Freddie with his school uniform.

As private schools open for a new term, many parents are complaining that the cost of sending their children to school has increased by as much as 20 per cent. School fees have risen to more than Dh50,000 (US$13,610) a year at some primary schools. But it is the added burden of transport costs that has some parents fuming.

Schools in Dubai were allowed to increase fees by between seven and 15 per cent this year. Elsewhere in the UAE, the increases were capped at eight per cent. Transport costs, however, are not regulated if schools outsource bus services, and in some cases expenses can spiral. Sami Mamoun Suleiman, a dentist whose three children go to school in Dubai, said transport costs have doubled for each of his three children this year, from Dh3,400 to Dh6,800.

"I'm frustrated, I'm going to explode," he said. "It's unnaturally excessive. It's a policy of arm-twisting by the schools." He said he would take his children to school himself because he could not afford to pay almost Dh21,000 for their bus travel. When transport fees were raised last year, the school attributed it to rising oil prices, he added. "Oil prices went down. Why didn't the fees decrease?"

Schools and transport companies maintain that the fee increases were necessary to cover the cost of revamping buses to comply with new safety regulations from the Roads and Transport Authority. Under the new rules, buses must be yellow, fitted with a device that limits the top speed to 80kph, and equipped with an electronic stop-arm. The cost of upgrading a bus to comply with the regulations is between Dh7,000 and Dh15,000, according to AH Malik, the managing director of Maverick Rental Transport Services, which specialises in school transport.

"It pushes up the cost, and we have to push the cost on to the parents," Mr Malik said, adding that the safety requirements should have been in place a decade ago. Schools that operate their own bus services are restricted by the same government regulations that cap school fees. But that does not apply if a school outsources its bus service. Susan Johnston, the principal at Al Salam Private School, said her school was forced to raise bus fees to Dh6,500 per student, which was the lowest price she could find. She attributed the bulk of the rise to transport companies having to use their revamped buses only for schoolchildren. "First of all it's expensive [to fit the specifications] and we can only work for your school," she said the companies told her.

"Last year we hired buses as well, but they had four or five jobs a day. The source of their income was from three or four places," Ms Johnston said. Now, "the whole income has to come from the school". Mr Malik said there was no explicit regulation that barred transport companies from using school buses elsewhere, but the new features made the vehicles unattractive to potential passengers. "I'm sure they wouldn't want to sit in a yellow school bus." Issa al Dossari, the chief executive of the RTA's Public Transport Agency, rejected the charge that the rise in costs was excessive. "What we want is safety as a minimum," he said. "The safety changes are not radical." The recession also plays a role in increasing operating costs and contributing to the rise in fees. Mr Malik said his company, which owned 55 buses, paid an average of Dh10,000 to hire drivers, many of whom worked in companies that had gone out of business. These drivers were asked to leave or had their visas cancelled, forcing the company to pay off their fines in order to hire them. The rules had "already pushed out a lot of the small operators" who could not operate within these margins, Mr Malik said. klewis@thenational.ae