x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Schools 'need private investment to improve'

Private sector investors have called for partnership between private and state sectors to raise education standards, but regulation must be transparent and consistent.

ABU DHABI // Private sector investors are ready to help to raise standards in the struggling state education system - but only within a more transparent and consistent regulatory framework, a high-level conference was told yesterday.

"Mixed feelings and fears" about combining the education sector with financial gain must be overcome to attract investment, otherwise standards will remain low or decline, said Chadi N Moujaes, principal of the UAE branch of the consultancy firm Booz & Co.

"We need the public and private sectors to join hands. There is a growing desire for high-quality schools and an increased willingness to pay for education, especially among UAE nationals," he said .

International assessments repeatedly rank national public education systems in the region among the lowest in the world. "This lack of quality education is worrying to many GCC parents, particularly as the world becomes increasingly intertwined and competitive," said Mr Moujaes.

"The challenge is not the lack of capital funding, because the banks are interested. But the private sector wants a clearer and more transparent consistency applied across the board, so that means that investors and governments need to work hand-in-hand, and there needs to be an open dialogue between regulators."

Carl Bistany, president of the private education management firm Sabis Lebanon, said: "The sad fact is that after decades of attempts to improve education, standards remain stagnant, if not in decline."

Youth unemployment in the Middle East, estimated at 25 per cent at an economic cost of up to $50 billion, can be addressed by creating a stronger atmosphere of competition in schools through the involvement of the private sector, Mr Bistany said.

"The private sector can effectively tap into their resources to improve outcomes and quality of services, while at the same time reducing costs," he said.

The private sector's motivation, he said, was obvious: "Call it whatever you wish; the fear of losing your shirt, the money motivator, the skin in the game; the financial motivation cannot be overlooked and must not be tempered by the frequent threat of reduced funding or a limitation on profits."

Mr Bistany said that as long as the private sector operated successful schools there should be no financial limitations, but he stressed the importance of a "clear system of checks and balances".

He also said governments should take responsibility for monitoring results and holding the private sector accountable. "The government should deregulate the process and allow the private sector to use the approach they consider most effective, but it should be clear that everyone will be held to the same objective standards."

Public-private partnerships, he said, must be true partnerships. "With all of the resources, expertise and benefits of the private sector, the PPPs can be leveraged to effectively meet the challenges of the constantly changing landscape and the increasingly demanding standards of education."

John Dennehy, a non-executive director of the specialist schools contractor Sammon Group, which has several projects in the UAE, also said an honest and open relationship between the private and public sectors is invaluable.

"You cannot improve an education system if it is not done in true partnership. Sure, there are short-term gains, but there is no long-term sustainability, if you don't have this," he said.

Mr Dennehy, the former chief civil servant at the Irish education ministry, warned about over-reliance on consultants.

"Consultants should be shadowed by someone from the Abu Dhabi Education Council. You need consultants who know the local culture and understand it. Some places overuse consultants, but I'm glad to say it's not happening here."

The Building Future Education Mena conference at Abu Dhabi National Convention Centre is taking place in partnership with Abu Dhabi Education Council. It was attended yesterday by Humaid Mohammad Al Qatami, the Minister of Education, and Dr Mugher Khams Al Khaili, Director General of Adec.

molson@thenational.ae