On Tuesday, staff at the UAE largest private education group were given the news that teachers' salaries would not be hiked in 2019 and at least 75 non-education personnel would be let go. As The National reports, the drastic decision by GEMS Education – which operates 47 schools and nurseries in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – was prompted by the freeze on school tuition fees for the next academic year ordered earlier this month by the Dubai Executive Council.
What are the implications of all this for the standard of education at fee-paying schools? Teachers are the lifeblood of education. And if the push for affordability deters outstanding teachers from seeking opportunities in the UAE, it is the pupils who will suffer. But there is another side to this story, and that involves parents who associate high fees with high calibre of education.
This predisposition has created the ideal atmosphere for what economists call "prestige pricing" – driving up the cost of products to create the impression of quality – and made the UAE home to the highest number of private schools in the world. Is there a better way for a new school to be noticed in a crowded market than to launch with eye-watering fees? A study by HSBC last year found that a child's education costs parents in the UAE nearly $100,000 – the second costliest place after Hong Kong. There are decent schools in the UAE where the annual fee is Dh6,259 and there are those which charge close to Dh100,000.
There are perhaps good reasons to account for the vast gulf, including better facilities and pastoral care – but by flocking to the priciest schools, parents have created incentives for schools to inflate fees. There are few things more important than education, and parents have a greater choice now than ever before at most price points. The marketplace has matured; if the freeze on fees can dispell the notion that price is everything, it will have been beneficial.