Private schools in Dubai are reducing and freezing their fees to attract and retain the brightest pupils in an increasingly competitive market.
The fee freezes and reductions represent a recalibration of the market, which is being driven by better choice and changes to expatriate packages, according to experts.
“I think the expat salary packages have changed and for a lot of them school fees are now included in their salary, so parents are making the decision for themselves,” says Fiona McKenzie, director of Gabbitas Middle East, an educational consultant based in Dubai.
“In the past a company [said it was] fine to do X amount, but when it is coming out of their bank account it’s a slightly different mental process.”
In January, Horizon International School became the third Dubai school that month to announce a fee reduction for the 2018-19 academic year. The school has slashed its fees by up to 33 per cent, joining both Repton School Dubai and Foremarke School Dubai, which had already announced a reduction of around 10 per cent.
A total of 22 Dubai schools chose to freeze their fees in 2017, according to WhichSchoolAdvisor.com. And experts say some have turned down the opportunity to increase their fees by their full entitlement, while still others are offering better value for money by incorporating extras like extracurricular activities and uniforms in the fees.
Mohammed Darwish, chief of Regulations and Permits Commission at Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), says schools are trying to understand the needs of parents.
“We are seeing a consistent effort by schools to focus on niche offerings that offer value for money. This is a positive trend and we are expecting more schools to review their value proposition as they continue to meet the growing demand for high-quality private education in Dubai,” says Mr Darwish.
At Horizon, which has more than 800 students, fees have been reduced for years five to 13 by between 7 per cent and 33 per cent. A place in years 12 and 13 will now cost Dh65,000, representing a 33 per cent reduction.
Repton School Dubai has frozen its junior school fees and reduced its senior school fees by 10 per cent on average. From this September, tuition fees in the senior school will start at Dh75,000 in Year 7, while Foremarke has reduced its fees by 10 per cent across all year groups, from FS1 to Year 6. Its fees start at Dh58,500.
Both Repton and Foremarke say the new charges represent their new base fees, and are not temporary reductions. Both institutions are operated by Evolvence Knowledge Investments (EKI).
“Our academic results are already among the best in the country, and we now have aspirations to compete with the best schools globally,” said Nitin Kripalani, chief executive of EKI.
To achieve those goals, the school must attract and retain the best and brightest pupils, he says.
“Thus, the primary goal of reducing our fees was to make us more accessible to a wider student population. The current economic pressure on parents has also weighed on our decision. This reduction has enabled many of our long-standing families to stay with us and for their kids to continue thriving academically and personally.”
The fee reductions and freezes have been welcomed by parents across Dubai.
Hannah Dowson was grateful to Safa Community School when it chose to limit its increase after achieving the rating "good" in its first inspection. The school was entitled to raise its fees by more than the 1.5 per cent it applied for.
The highest possible rating for a school in Dubai is "Outstanding" and this rating allows schools to raise their fees by double the Education Cost Index.
“The two owners of the school had budgeted for the next 10 years and didn’t need a 3.6 per cent increase. And they would rather keep the families they had because they realised everyone was quite tight for cash," says Ms Dawson.
Many other parents are hoping their schools in Dubai will follow suit in offering reductions.
"We haven’t heard yet if there will be a reduction [we hope] since we have had a hefty increase three years in a row," says a parent with two children at Horizon English School, who wished to remain anonymous.
“I think with VAT, and the cost of living constantly on the rise, a reduction in school fees will certainly make a difference to our family."
Dubai has the second-highest school fees in the world, according to HSBC. On average it costs $99,378 to educate children from primary to university in Dubai, which is second to only Hong Kong at $132,161, according to the bank’s Value of Education series, which was released last July.
That cost has proved prohibitively expensive for Luisa Maggioni, who has been forced to home-school her 17-year-old son because she cannot afford the fees. She says even with fee reductions, schooling is too expensive in the emirate.
Her son had been attending school until last year, when her husband lost his job. She was also not working at the time.
“I didn’t want [my son] to lose one year of school so the only option was home schooling. So he studied with his online school. He started that last year,” Ms Maggioni says.
“It’s very tough for him. He is very mature. He doesn’t complain. But school is not only education. It’s an environment, especially for a teenager. School is your friends. School is activities. Not only your assignments - spending time with your friends. My son lacks a social life,” she says.
Mrs Maggioni and her husband have now both found jobs, but will still not be able to afford to pay for her son’s schooling come September, having amassed debts that they now need to clear.
“I think many families here have problems which are related to school fees because lately I have read about many families who were forced to leave the country because of the rent and the school fees,” says Mrs Maggioni, from Italy.
"Why don’t schools try and facilitate the payment terms by offering monthly instalments?" she says.
"In Italy I used to pay [for my son's schooling] monthly."
Experts say that while fees seem very high here, they are not as expensive as UK independent schools.
“And, of course, predominantly the market out here is private schools, whether they are not for profit or for profit. I think that obviously dictates the fee level,” says Ms McKenzie.
Schools spend about 50 to 70 per cent of their income on teaching staff, and they tend to be more expensive in the UAE because schools have to pay for their accommodation and gratuities, she says. Plus, many have exceptional facilities when compared to schools abroad, she adds.
Another factor that adds to the cost is the deposit to secure a child’s place, which can be considerable with more than one child, says Ms McKenzie.
“Schools need to cover themselves in case they have a lot of leavers,” she points out.
She says the Abu Dhabi schools market is a very different to Dubai’s and she is not expecting any fee reductions in the capital as there are still not enough places for children.
Ms McKenzie says while school fees can be “tricky”, they also are part of life in the UAE.
“And to an extent, you get what you pay for. So I think what’s really good is that with the maturing of the market we are seeing a lot more diversity on offer," she says.
"So you could pay Dh100,000 for some schools, but equally there are other schools where you can pay less than Dh50,000. And isn’t that great that there is choice in the marketplace?”