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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 October 2018

The man who built an education empire

Having built the Gems network of 26 schools across the UAE, the company's chairman looks to expand globally.

DUBAI // When Sunny Varkey talks about his schools, he likens them to an airline. "We're trying to offer an affordable product at each level," he says. "If you look at an airline you've got from budget economy, business, first class, all the way to the private jet."

Mr Varkey is quick to state, however, that even the budget end of his Gems schools, the largest network of schools in the UAE, offers good value and high standards. "Although we say we are for-profit, we don't profiteer," Mr Varkey said. "If you go to all our schools, budget or premium, you will see that they are all very well resourced. We never compromise on that." Global Education Management Systems began with a single Indian primary school founded by Mr Varkey's parents in Dubai in 1968. It is now the largest network of private schools in the Emirates, with 26 in total. The Dubai-based entrepreneur now wants it to become the largest in the world.

"If the likes of Marriott have four or five thousand hotels, I don't know why we should not have the same numbers," Mr Varkey said. "That could take 20 or 30 years." This autumn Mr Varkey, 51, a slight and handsome multi-millionaire who made his fortune on schools and hospitals, opened his most palatial school yet, the Gems World Academy in Dubai. The school, which has a planetarium, music rooms complete with Steinway pianos and a robotics lab, is fit for the children of kings. Costing Dh250 million (US$68.1m) to build, it has a lobby that resembles a high-end hotel, with sparkling lights whose colours shift from blue to yellow and an enormous fountain at its centre.

Its exclusivity is guaranteed by its tuition fees - Dh92,000 (US$25,000) for grade 12. By contrast, Our Own English High School-Dubai, the very first Gems school, charges only Dh8,450 for grade 12. At a mid-range option, such as the Dubai Modern High School, grade 12 costs Dh20,880. Mr Varkey is careful to note that he feels Gems has the right balance between commerce and education. While some might blanch at the idea of schools tailored to different price ranges, he is adamant that the quality of instruction does not vary.

He uses the airline metaphor to compare the World Academy and Our Own English High School: you pay more for a better meal with your flight, a more comfortable seat and extra leg room. But everyone gets to the same destination. "We're all about quality. Within the educational sphere, teachers play a very important role, so even in a budget school if the teacher is good you will be able to deliver the kind of grades that are necessary to send a child to a good university."

He points to the success of pupils at the Cambridge International school on International General Certificate of Secondary Education exams, one of his mid-range models, as an example. The man who describes himself as a "perfectionist" was educated at a British boarding school on the Isle of Wight. He returned to Dubai in 1976 when he was about 20, where his parents, immigrants from southern India, have lived since 1958.

In 1980, he took over the family business, running Our Own English High School, which catered to the children of Indian expatriates. With 27 teachers, the school was home to only 720 pupils. Today it has more than 7,000. "Being the only son in the family, I had a responsibility," Mr Varkey said. "But I have an entrepreneurial business thing in my system, in my blood." The entrepreneurial streak led him to seize on an opportunity for growth in the education market. "I found that the state schools around the world were not doing a great job, and I thought this is an industry where we can make a difference."

Three years after refurbishing Our Own English High School, Mr Varkey opened the Cambridge International School in Dubai. Business boomed and in 2003, Gems expanded into the British market, buying Sherborne House School, a private school in Hampshire. But, like all visionaries, Mr Varkey has his detractors. In 2005, a group of parents at the Bury Lawn School, in Buckinghamshire, England, publicly complained about Gems' management, pointing to the dismissal of four head teachers in one year, and claiming that the quality of education had fallen under Mr Varkey's watch.

At the time, Mr Varkey suggested disgruntled parents should withdraw their children and insisted they cease talking to the press. But today, he says, many have returned their children to the school. Gems takes advantage of economies of scale, running a huge network of schools that share resources and information and provides training to teachers across the whole system. The company operates schools across several curriculums - in the Emirates it offers British, American, IB, and CBSE.

But, Mr Varkey said it can be difficult to operate in the UAE. "It is definitely becoming challenging to open and operate new schools because the cost of land and the cost of operating schools is very high." He noted that it was becoming increasingly difficult to operate schools at the lower end of the spectrum because of the Ministry of Education's cap on fees. But he is confident that for-profit schools can be run better than those provided by the Government. For now, Gems is looking both East and West, to Singapore and the United States, in its expansion plans.

klewis@thenational.ae