UAE families struggle to balance the cost of education

In an uncertain economic environment, some parents in the UAE are considering more cost-effective ways of educating their children, including relocating their families overseas. But these decisions should not be made lightly, experts advise.

Peter Loughran and his family. From left to right: Niamh (13), Ciara (14), Aida (53) and Peter (53). Courtesy Peter Loughran
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The Loughran family lived happily together in Abu Dhabi as a family for 10 years.

But this year, with the low oil prices creating a climate of uncertainty, Peter Loughran and his wife Aida made the difficult decision to send their daughters, aged 13 and 14, to a state boarding school back home in the United Kingdom.

“My initial reason was the uncertainty surrounding employment here at the moment,” says Mr Loughran, 53, an English teacher. “In January, people in the college where I work whose three-year contracts were up for renewal were all told they weren’t being kept on. I was one of those people. A few months later I was offered a new contract, which I signed, but the whole episode had already created a lot of uncertainty in my mind.”

Mr Loughran’s eldest daughter, Ciara, has just begun her GCSE years in the UK school system. “Had the children stayed, then I’d lost my job – and the next job doesn’t pay school fees, which seems to be happening more and more – we would’ve all had to go home midway through the school year, which would’ve been very unfair on Ciara,” says Mr Loughran.

His daughters are now attending a UK state boarding school at a cost of £11,400 (Dh51,350) per year per child, Dh9,000 cheaper, per child, than the British curriculum school they had been attending in Abu Dhabi.

His decision is not surprising.

According to two recent independent studies, parents in the UAE can spend Dh1 million or more on their child’s education – a figure that includes a school education in the UAE and university studies overseas.

While asset management group Old Mutual International calculated this cost as nearly Dh1.5m per child, Zurich International Life, Middle East estimated a total cost of Dh1m per child. Either way, it’s a hefty sum for parents to consider.

A report from the consultancy Colliers, released this week, urged British curriculum schools in the UAE to reduce their fees to reflect the effects of slowing growth in the wider economy.

Education providers should establish “an affordable fee structure” which the report cites as in the range of £6,000 to £12,000. Mansoor Ahmed, the education analyst at Colliers, also warned that many employers and government agencies have started to “curtail education allowances”, which “directly affects parents’ ability to afford schools”.

That is certainly a situation Mr Loughran was facing.

“It got to the stage where my company’s schooling allowance didn’t cover the whole amount, so I was having to top it up,” he says.

Ambareen Musa, the founder and chief executive of the comparison website, says the average annual fee of the 300 schools listed on her site is Dh30,000, with some school fees as high as Dh120,000.

“Rising school fees have definitely put a dent on parents’ budgets,” she says, “but salaries and benefits are not growing as fast. Many companies are becoming much more conscious of their cost base and looking at ways to stay lean. The other factor to consider with the pound is that while it may appear cheaper to send the kids to school abroad, parents need to remember that the exchange rate is variable and education is long term.”

Andrew Prince, a financial planner at Acuma agrees. Making a decision that will split a family up to save money, or to mitigate against uncertainty, should not be made lightly, he warns. “These decisions take time, careful planning to prepare and execute,” he says.

“Some of the considerations in this instance should include: which school would suit their needs best? Are there relatives in proximity to look after them? How much should I budget an allowance for them on top of the school fees? How often will we see them and how much would the flights and accommodation be? And finally, are there any tax implications involved with spending time back home?”

Julie Gibson, from Scotland, the manager of Blooming Minds nursery in Khalifa City, first came to Abu Dhabi to work for a different nursery chain in 2011. But two years later, the unexpected happened. “I fell pregnant, which was a lovely surprise, but we had to assess how we were going to manage it because the rent cap had just been lifted,” says Ms Gibson, 37, whose husband runs a corporate wellness programme in the capital. The couple already had two children, who at the time were eight and four.

“Our rent in a really lovely house in Al Nahyan Camp was put up by Dh20,000, which was a significant amount of money compared to what we were earning. I was still on a good enough salary to pay the children’s school fees and for a little bit of disposable income. But then my husband’s job starting feeling a bit unstable – more on a gut instinct, but in fact we were proven right in the end. So we decided the best thing to do would be for me and the kids to go home.”

In 2014, Ms Gibson returned to her home near Glasgow, in Scotland, with the couple’s two children and gave birth to her son. “My husband was unable to travel because of his job in Abu Dhabi, but I felt lucky to have the UK’s National Health Service and my extended family at home to support me,” she says.

Then after a five-week holiday in Abu Dhabi this summer, Ms Gibson decided the grass wasn’t greener back home and in Aug­ust, the family returned to live in Abu Dhabi with Mr Gibson.

“It wasn’t difficult at all to come back, I feel very at home here,” she says.

Nevertheless, Ms Gibson’s new job provides a single person’s package, so financially the Gibsons are no better off now than they were before she left Abu Dhabi. “The whole pinnacle of wanting to get a good package and some stability here has still not been reached,” she says. “We put the money in a pot now to pay the school fees.”

For manual workers in the UAE who come from countries such as Pakistan, Nepal and the Philippines, the costs of supporting family in the Emirates can be espe­cially hard to bear when compared with the relatively inexpensive cost of school fees, food and bills back home.

Moin Uddin, a Pakistani who has lived in the UAE for two years, made the decision this July to move his wife, two daughters, aged 13 and nine, and his eight-year-old son back home to Pakistan. “It was due to high cost of living, plus due to losing my job unexpectedly,” says Mr Uddin, who recently opened a new business, Al Haris General Trading, in Ras Al Khaimah. “I have now moved from a larger accommodation to a smaller one. At present nothing has been saved, but the difference in cost between the large and small accommodation is half.”

Mr Loughran is also saving money by downsizing from a four-bed villa to a one-bed flat in Abu Dhabi.

“So we’re now saving on our housing allowance,” he says. “Lots of people in the block I’m in are single blokes, so I think many wives and kids are being sent home.”

But other earners want to keep the family in the UAE for as long as they can. Mohamed ­Farid, a business lecturer from Damascus, Syria, has been based in Dubai since August 2010. He fears his contract will not be renewed next year and that he, his wife and two children, ages 17 and 10, will have to return to war-stricken Syria.

“We are in a very threatening and depressing situation,” says the 47-year-old. “My kids have been educated in a British school in Dubai for the last six years and their Arabic is very poor, so if we need to move back to our home country, they will not be able to adapt. Every night we expect an email to say goodbye, we don’t need your services.”

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