A freeze on tuition fees in Dubai has been welcomed by parents, but it means schools have had to be savvy with their budgets as costs rise.
This month, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority announced fees at private schools in Dubai would not be increased for the coming academic year to reduce the financial burden on parents.
It is the third year in a row that schools have been prohibited from raising their fees.
However, as the price of fuel increases and worldwide shipping costs continue to rise sharply, school leaders said procuring materials such as sanitisers, books and furniture was more expensive than ever.
Zahid Sarosh, chief executive of Focal Point Management Consultancy, said the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic used up a sizeable portion of school budgets.
“Operating costs are definitely on the rise, especially in the past two years due to the Covid-19 situation,” he said.
“We’re seeing increased expenses in the procurement of stationery, books, uniforms, and most of all in the fuel prices that have seen a consistent hike for quite some time now.
“There have been increased costs with respect to the procurement of materials required by regulation for health and hygiene and to prevent the spread of the virus, such as sanitisers, dispensers, masks, gloves, and also monitoring equipment, like infrared thermometers and kiosks.”
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Mr Sarosh said many schools would have planned to increase the salaries of teachers and staff because they had not received any raises in the past couple of years owing to the pandemic.
“This particular area will be difficult to implement [with the freeze], since employee compensation is one of the largest expense categories for schools,” he said.
“Annual events, staff away days and employee engagement programmes, along with bonuses, are some of the areas that will also be affected due to budget cuts.
“Schools will have to look for alternatives to motivate and enthuse teachers and other employees.”
While he can understand why parents would welcome the fee freeze, Mr Sarosh said it could affect school development, which will have a bearing on pupils.
“Education should never be stagnant and schools should employ an approach of continuous improvement in all areas,” he said.
“Appropriate funding is definitely needed for any enhancement in these areas.
“Even if it’s not a large fee raise, a modest one will allow the schools to take small steps to improve continuously.”
Schools fees vary widely in Dubai. On the lower end of the scale, English Language Private School charges between Dh4,560 and Dh6,720 a year ($1,240 to $1,830) from Years one to six.
Sheela Menon, principal of Ambassador School in Dubai, said she had not anticipated the fee freeze.
The average annual tuition fees at the school are Dh29,000.
“The decision [by the KHDA] must have taken into account the current situation and the fact that families are still in the initial stages of recovery from financial hits in the pandemic,” she said.
“The costs of running a school rise every year. The land rents and school building rents were agreed with landlords long ago, with incremental costs on a year-on-year basis.
“The school supplies have also become more expensive over time and shipping costs have been going up worldwide.”
It is difficult to say how the tuition freeze will affect staff salaries, Ms Menon said
“Retaining quality staff is the key to the success of any organisation, but with a freeze on fees this year and with the expenses increasing, now we know that revenue is not going to increase," she said.
Alan Williamson, chief executive of Taaleem, which operates 17 schools in the UAE, including nine in Dubai, said the group would not cut any of its services as a result of the freeze.
“The cost of running a school usually increases by a minimum 3 to 5 per cent per annum,” he said.
“Prior to the announcement by the KHDA, we had prudently planned for several differing scenarios, which included a zero-percentage rise in fees.
“Taaleem is not overleveraged with debt and has a board that is acutely attuned to the needs of our parents.
"The fee freeze will not affect our planned operations. There will be no cuts in offerings in our schools, we are committed to maintaining and improving our services for our students, staff and parents.
“Additionally, we will fully honour our pay increase pledge to all of our dedicated, highly professional and loyal staff.”