Opinion | Columnists

Education is big business indeed

Paying out more does not in itself guarantee quality education or a well-rounded future for children

  • By Tariq A. Al Maeena| Special to Gulf News
  • Published: 11:54 December 30, 2012
  • Gulf News

A recent story on the closure of a school in Dubai for unusual reasons appeared in the local press. The report said that the Westminster School would be closed by 2014 because it charged its students fees between Dh6,000 and Dh10,000 annually.

According to the chairman of the group managing that school and many other such institutions, the justification behind it was: “It is impossible to run a good school with fees as low as Dh6,000 [annually]. If the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) does not allow us to restructure fees, no school charging fees below Dh15,000 will survive in the UAE. In ten years they will all be gone.”

He added: “For the last five years, we have been sustaining our old schools by compromising on quality. But we do not want to run bad schools. That is why we are forced to take tough decisions.” He also suggested that other schools could face the chopping block if permission was not granted by the authorities to raise fees.

Sunny Varkey, the founder and CEO of Global Education Management Systems (GEMS), which owns Westminster, is in the business of making and operating schools. There are some 37 schools running under the GEMS umbrella in the UAE with annual school fees reaching over Dh90,000 at some institutions.

Varkey, born to parents whose profession was teaching, had once said: “I put my heart and soul into the business. With both my parents being teachers, I guess it’s in our genes. The industry that I am in is very different from what it was. We at GEMS are totally customer-driven and focused on excellence.”

In an attempt to silence his critics on the annual increase in school fees at his institutions, Varkey states that many parents who wanted the best education for their children would be willing to spend on the extra fees to ensure their children received top-quality education. He contends that his lesser-expensive schools also offer an excellent standard of education.

“Traditionally, education has been not-for-profit and totally customer driven.”

Not many parents, however, will agree with that last charitable statement. A mother, frustrated with annual increases in school fees, said: “Good! He better close down his schools; he not only earns from school fees, but from changing uniforms every year, uniforms which are third rate that parents have to keep paying for. He adds programmes to the curriculum for which you have to pay additional fees and then tries to justify the increase in fees.”

Earlier this year, a GEMS executive remarked that “new Indian schools — that have been or are being built — have all been allowed to set much higher fees than the older schools. This has led to concern about our schools’ ability to remain sustainable and their ability to continue to compete in the market for good teachers, something that is essential in order to provide quality education for children”.

If this is indeed the case then so be it. But it brings to mind a conversation I had with a brilliant Turkish executive sometime back in Saudi Arabia. He was obsessed with providing the best for his children. He even made it a point to talk to the teachers, inspect the building facilities, toilets and cafeteria before considering enrolling his young ones.

I asked him to rewind back to his school years. Were his school facilities the best around? Were the teachers impeccably qualified? Were the toilets clean and were the playgrounds well-managed? To each of these queries, his answer was “no”. And yet here he was, a product of that same environment which today he considers as sub-standard for his children and yet he turned out to be brilliant in his field.

In their drive to provide the best for their children, parents are often seduced by paying out more than they can afford to add to their children’s growing comforts. But that in itself does not guarantee quality education or a well-rounded future. Sunny Varkey, who studied in a small town in the Indian state of Kerala, can attest to that.

Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

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