Freeze on school fees ordered in Dubai

In warning letter to schools, regulator says parents are experiencing difficult financial times and charges must reflect circumstances.

DUBAI // Private schools in Dubai will be barred from increasing fees this year, the emirate's Knowledge and Human Development Authority has ordered. Parents have welcomed the freeze, but some schools say it could lower the quality of education in the emirate. In a letter to schools that focused on the economic downturn and the financial hardships faced by families, Mohammed Darwish, the chief of the regulations and compliance commission at the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), the emirate's education regulator, said schools needed to "adapt to our changed circumstances".

"Like everywhere, people are experiencing financially difficult times," he said. "All of us must equally share the enormous responsibility to make sure that the children of Dubai do not have their education disrupted because of the economic downturn that has swept the world." The letter does not explicitly use the word "barred", but it makes it clear the powerful regulator would take a dim view of schools that push for fee increases.

"We would be concerned to have such requests resubmitted, as we feel that we have made the case very clear," Mr Darwish said. The letter said the one exemption would be for schools that had to make a large capital outlay, such as moving premises. Ralph Tabberer, spokesman for the Dubai Private Schools Group, which represents 32 institutions that educate roughly 40 per cent of the emirate's school-aged population, said it was "seeking an urgent meeting" with the KHDA to discuss the decision. Eight operators representing 12 schools out of the 140 private institutions in Dubai have applied for fee increases so far this year. Several school administrators said higher fees were necessary to compete for high-quality staff and to make school improvements.

Bassam Abushakra, the regional director of Esol, which operates two schools in Dubai, said he would need to increase tuition at once despite the economic downturn. Esol has not put in a formal request to increase fees but will do so, he said. "We feel they should consider increases on a case-by-case basis. Some schools are in a situation where they have been operating in a deficit for a long time," Mr Abushakra said.

He said that one of the group's Dubai schools faced this problem because tuition fees were set too low when the school opened five years ago. Annual fee caps have prevented them from catching up with their competitors, he said. Mr Abushakra said rents had gone down in Dubai, but his group had not reduced teachers' housing allowances, which have remained at Dh61,000 a year. Othman Abdel Bari, the director of the American International School in Dubai, said that fee increases were sometimes needed simply to improve the quality of a school.

"Last year we did not increase our fees because of the economic situation," he said. "Every single school in Dubai needs to increase by at least seven per cent," he added, pointing to the decision last year that even allowed "unsatisfactory" schools such an increase. The KHDA has been imposing fee caps in Dubai for the past three years. In 2007 it allowed schools to increase fees by as much as 16 per cent. In 2008, schools that had not adopted that increase were allowed to raise fees to that level.

And last year, it tied increases to school performance, with top schools being granted a 15 per cent increase. Almost nine out of 10 parents with children enrolled in nurseries, schools or universities said fees were expensive, according to a recent survey by YouGov, an international research organisation. Only 12 per cent said schools were good value or very reasonable. Jerus Moss, a mother of three from the Bahamas living in Dubai, said she supported the freeze. "With the economic crisis, a lot of people have been laid off," she said. "Hopefully, by next school year the economy will pick up and everything will go back to normal."