The trouble with school fees

Rise they must – it’s the law of the market – but make the change as painless as possible.

Fee-paying education does not have to be costly to be good. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
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School fees, along with housing costs, are subject to natural increase across this region and indeed, in much of the world. Despite the inevitability of this part of the economic cycle, fee increases always bring fresh discussion about the cost of living. This conversation is especially pointed in the UAE thanks to the centrality of fee-paying education for foreign families. It is critical, however, to note that increases tend to be more modest here than in many other countries.

As The National reported yesterday, Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority has approved tuition fee increases of anywhere between 2.92 and 5.84 per cent for 117 private schools for the next academic year. The decision will keep fees at select top-tier schools among the highest in the region. Some analysts warn that a significant rise in school fees along with higher costs of living can have potentially negative effects on the wider job market.

There are several possible steps that could take the sting out of these increases. Employers can provide more assistance with school fees, which will matter a lot especially to the middle-income families hardest hit by the increases. Re-evaluating benefits packages will help send the message that retaining talented staff is a priority.

Another possible measure would lie with the fee-paying schools themselves. Some of them have posted impressive earnings in recent years and they are well able to afford more scholarship packages. Partial or full, every bursary would be a help as parents wrestle with rising tuition costs.

Lastly, perhaps the authorities might consider imposing further limits on annual fee increases. Only after schools and employers attempt to bring relief themselves should the government move to impose more dramatic measures to remedy the situation.

Fee-paying education does not have to be costly to be good, although many parents tend to conflate high fees with better schooling. A middle way needs to be found to help hard-working expatriate parents put their children through school.