Education is not simply another kind of business

The end of the two-year freeze on school tuition in Dubai shows that fee-paying schools are neither purely businesses nor community services.

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The proposed lifting of the freeze of school fees in Dubai is a moment most parents will have been dreading, even if they knew such a move was inevitable. However, it also highlights the unusual situation of education in the UAE. On the one hand, fee-paying schools dominate the market and are attended by nearly 90 per cent of students in the emirate. Yet, on the other, they are overwhelmingly for-profit businesses, answerable to investors rather than either students or their parents.

As such, these schools exist in a putative grey zone, being neither pure businesses nor community services, while retaining aspects of both. If they peddled shawarmas rather than educated young minds, their accounts would be commercially sensitive documents and there would be no legitimate public interest about the contents. But they don’t sell shawarmas, which is why the authorities are right to regulate the industry, including the schools’ ability to raise fees.

Fee hikes are a legitimate concern for most parents. With wages generally stagnant and with, for many, education allowances falling short of meeting the tuition costs of a good school, any rise in school fees means parents will be financially worse off than they had been the year before. From the schools’ point of view, they need to maximise the financial return for their investors and fee freezes force them to absorb any increases in the cost of running the schools.

The Dubai School Inspection Bureau, the authority responsible for school fees, has to tread a careful line. It initiated the freeze on fees because data compiled by the Dubai Statistics Centre showed that the cost of running schools had actually dropped slightly. It announced the freeze would end in September for the 2014-15 academic year because data now showed costs were rising once again.

An important aspect of the end of the fee freeze is that the increases will be linked to performance. Schools rated as outstanding will be able to raise tuition fees by 3.48 per cent, while those graded merely satisfactory can only do so by half that. This directly rewards excellence and ought to be applauded.

Education is clearly important, both for the development of young minds and in attracting and retaining the most skilled parents in the UAE workforce. That is why schools are not simply businesses but have a responsibility and a duty to the community. And to that end, greater transparency on the reasons for price hikes is only reasonable.