School fee cap may be bad for education sector

Limiting the fees that underperforming schools can charge may not have the intended effect.

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Education is a priority issue for all families in the UAE. The challenge for those parents who are seeking private education for their children is to find a school that offers a high standard at an affordable price. For that reason, the report in The National yesterday that the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec) has rejected fee-rise applications by 43 underperforming private schools would appear to be good news. There is, however, reason for caution about making this conclusion.

Adec insists that schools must show “improvement of human resources by recruiting quality teachers and focusing on professional development of salaries” before a fee increase is approved. Nobody could argue against the proposition that good teachers are key to a good education, nor can it be denied that, as Adec also stipulates, schools should invest in building maintenance and proper facilities, and hire some Emirati faculty and administrative staff members.

The catch for schools that have had fee rises rejected is that they are now under pressure to improve their standards, at considerable cost, without being able to increase their revenue. Denying extra funds to these 43 schools while allowing an average six per cent fee increase at 39 other schools could have the effect of creating a class of “elite” institutions with the best available staff and facilities, while allowing a further dilution of quality at the other schools.

This would most likely mean that waiting lists for enrolment at the better-performing schools will grow and, as their capacity increases to meet the demand, the lower-ranking schools will suffer even further as their student numbers drop. These schools risk being caught in a downwards spiral.

Not-for-profit schools, supported in part by charities or an endowment, may provide part of the solution to the puzzle, but these schools still have to compete on the ever-tighter world market for suitably qualified teachers.

With Dh2.9 billion paid in school fees in Abu Dhabi alone in the 2012-13 academic year, education is big business. Parents have a right to expect the results they pay for, and Adec and the other UAE education authorities have a responsibility to ensure high standards at all schools.

Punishing those schools that don’t achieve a certain standard may, however, be counterproductive without a parallel approach that encourages schools deemed to have lower standards to improve.