The ABCs of innovative policy to fund expatriate education

Schooling for expatriates is a persistent problem in the UAE. Here are four ways to solve the schools crisis for low-wage expats.

The planned closure next year of Westminster School in Dubai has highlighted the problem of how expatriate families, in particular those on low or modest incomes, pay for education for their children.

Education, particularly in a country such as the UAE where the majority of the population are expatriates, is more complex than it first seems. Government provides public schools for citizens from its budget, but because it receives no money in direct taxation from expatriates, it does not have a responsibility to provide schools for expatriate children.

In a country with many expatriates, education is not a public good, in the way that health is; while it makes sense for the government to spend money on making sure everyone is healthy - because we all benefit from living among people who are healthy - few benefit directly from having other people's children educated.

At the same time, it is not sufficient to say that expatriates who cannot afford to pay for their children's education should simply leave them in their home countries. This ignores that many expatriates have lived in the UAE for years, even generations, and many more would not bring their skills and expertise to the country if they could not also bring their families.

There are options, however, that don't involve the state doing all the work or throwing the system completely open to the free market. Let me suggest four; two involve the UAE government, and two involve the governments and communities of other countries that have many citizens in the UAE.

The simplest solution would be for communities to do it themselves, as happens with American Community Schools. These schools can be run on a non-profit basis, set up either by philanthropists or organised as trusts.

A more complex solution would involve the home government of expatriates. Take, as an example, the Indian government, whose citizens make up a sizeable proportion of residents in the Emirates.

India's economy benefits greatly from expatriate remittances - it is broadly in the country's interest to ensure that its citizens can keep working in the UAE.

New Delhi, or even state governments, could assume a responsibility to provide schools here for Indians. The money to fund these schools - or to subsidise places at private schools already in the UAE - would not have to come from general taxation, but might come from a levy imposed on remittances from the UAE.

There would be immediate questions that arise in this arrangement, mainly to do with fairness. Sticking with the example of the Indian government, would it be right, for example, for middle-class Indians who send money home to be taxed to provide school places for the children of their better-off compatriates?

Given that there is a minimum salary level in the UAE below which workers cannot bring their families, and given that schooling at Indian-curriculum schools can cost as little as Dh5,000 a year, it could be argued that most people who want to send their children to a school can do so.

Only those who want their children to attend schools teaching international curricula have to pay more - and given that, is it fair for the Indian government to pay for their ambitions, when there are many Indians in their own country who are not able to afford private schooling?

The most radical solution would be for the UAE to tax expatriates, as nearly all other countries do, and use that money to provide schools. There are two elements of this that might seem unfair: the first is that this would essentially be redistribution, from the higher-income expatriate workers to those on more modest incomes. The second is that people without children would be paying for the education of other people's children.

Yet neither of those situations is especially unusual: general taxation everywhere pays for a whole range of public services that most people never use.

The fourth solution would be for the UAE government to subsidise some education for expatriates. While the government does not have a responsibility to educate the children of foreigners, particularly in the absence of taxation, the country does benefit from the presence of expatriates. So the government might follow the model pioneered by the Hong Kong government in its English Schools Foundation, which covers about a third of schools' expenses, with the rest coming from fees.

There is an incidental benefit to this system, because it would create something of a market in public education: if the schools taught an English curriculum, it is probable that some Emirati parents who could not afford other private schools would want to send their children to these low-price private schools. Thus, these schools would compete with public schools, raising standards across the board.

This list of policies is hardly comprehensive, and none of the options is perfect. Some are radical and would require a significant change in policy. But these models provide the outlines of how structured policy ideas could provide answers to even the most personal of questions.

On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai