New plan would freeze school fees for two years

Ministry official says the 'country cannot afford' annual rises.

RAS AL KHAIMAH // Education chiefs are considering a proposal that would effectively freeze school fees for the next two years. The plan being considered by the Ministry of Education would allow schools to raise their fees by a maximum of 20 per cent, once every three years. Since most schools raised fees last year, they would not be permitted to do so again until 2012.

The current system, introduced in 2008, stipulates a maximum increase of 10 per cent a year, but leaves the regulation of fee levels to local education councils. The proposal is the latest stage in a battle of wills between education authorities and the largest private school operator, Gems Education. Last month the chairman of Gems, Sunny Varkey, said he would close some schools if he could not raise fees.

Ministry officials revealed their new plan at a symposium held by the Gulf Comparative Education Society (GCES), which studies education policy ideas. Maryam al Ali, director of the ministry office that supervises and monitors private schools, said: "We would like to go back to the 20 per cent within three years." She said school operators want to increase their fees every year, but "the country cannot afford it".

"We all know the economic crisis. We received many requests, for a 30 or 40 per cent increase. And their reason is always that they are improving their schools." If implemented, the proposal would be another step towards mitigating what education authorities see as a rising financial burden on parents in already tough economic times. It also defies warnings by Mr Varkey that high operating costs are pushing low-fee Indian community schools to the "breaking point".

In a letter to the Knowledge and Human Development Authority, which regulates Dubai's schools and froze fee increases this year, Mr Varkey said he might have to close down old community schools which were at a disadvantage, especially compared with newer schools entering the market with higher fees. Ms al Ali said she believed Gems was unlikely to carry out its threat to close schools. While she praised the standards of the school provider, she said there should be less emphasis on the commercial aspect of education.

When questioned on the possibility of school closures in response to fee freezes, she said: "Do you think this will happen? I think Gems Education are providing the best education and I think they should make it for the purpose of equity and education. "They are serving the country and they are serving foreigners and nationals also. I don't think we will reach this conclusion. There is always the issue of negotiation.

"The Ministry and the director general do not make random decisions. We see Gems as partners. They are helping us to improve schools. They are not working alone. They work with the Ministry of Education, especially for schools that have been here for a long time, so they have to contribute to this." The proposal that introduced the current fee structure was imposed by the ministry after four months of study. This raises the possibility that a decision could be made about fee structures before the start of the new school year.

Ms al Ali said the proposed framework was a fair compromise for parents and schools. A spokesman for Gems declined to comment. Dr Natasha Ridge, the secretary of GCES, and one of the organisers of the conference, said such a decision could help parents with economic difficulties, but raised questions about government interference in the market. Dr Ridge said the situation was complicated by the lack of a "public option" for expatriates, particularly non-Arabic speakers, who cannot join government schools.

Capping fees is not a long-term solution but educational authorities might have to come up with a system that could help to subsidise non-profit schools, she said.