NAT stock school-1592729062066
Picture for illustrative purposes: Students in school Image Credit: Stock

Dubai: Premium schools in the UAE are most at risk of losing students to more affordable options such as “budget-friendly” schools, online schools and home-schooling, education experts have said.

Many parents of expensive schools who have lost income in the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic are considering the move, the UAE-based consultants added.

However, top-end schools are caught between retaining families by adjusting fees and meeting their own obligations towards salaries, rent and loans.

Many schools have already reduced fees by 20 to 30 per cent and it is now a wait-and-watch situation for both schools and parents regarding the start of the new academic year in September.

Fiona McKenzie, head of Carfax Education UAE, said the decision to move schools will not be taken lightly by parents.

Last resort

Fiona McKenzie

“Generally, for most families, education is the last area where they will economise; they will try everything else before they change their child’s education. Every parent wants the best for their child and most are loathe to interrupt a child’s schooling if they are settled and happy in the environment and learning well,” she added.

‘Decline in re-enrolments’

“However, in the current situation, I think that as families face severely reduced circumstances in terms of income levels or losing a job, that they will have to consider moving their children from premium brand schools to more affordable options. And already we are seeing a decline in the number of re-enrolments in some premium-end schools as parents sit tight and wait to see how the situation plays out. Key to this will be what sort of schooling will be offered in September and how quickly the economy starts to pick up.”

McKenzie added premium schools are likewise eager to not see disruptions for their families.

“I am sure that each school will be looking closely to see how they can make the education they are offering as affordable as possible. However, overheads, land rent and staff costs remain the same, so it is not always financially viable to offer significant fee reductions or discount schemes or scholarships and many schools at the top-end of the market had already reduced their fees last year to make themselves more affordable,” she said.

Rise of alternatives

As schools closed in March due to the pandemic and classes moved online, there has been a rise in interest in alternatives to traditional schools, such as home-schooling.

McKenzie said, “However, that is a huge commitment of time for at least one of the parents, which can be incompatible with having a full time job. We have several home-schoolers at Carfax who are taught by our tutors who support home-learning…”

Saturated market

Soraya Beheshti, Director of MENA Region, Crimson Education, said school fees have traditionally been rigid in the UAE.

“The UAE is a hugely-saturated school market and unfortunately that hasn’t led to competitive prices; schools are expensive here,” she added.

In the wake of the disruption by the pandemic, this has contributed to more parents mulling other options, including online schools.

‘A lot of interest’

Beheshti said, “We’ve definitely seen a lot of interest in people looking for more flexible options; a lot of people are relocating from the UAE.

Soraya Beheshti

“We had a webinar [recently] about Crimson Global Academy, our online British curriculum which is very competitively-priced compared to many of the schools in the UAE and it’s accredited internationally, and we had hundreds of people register interest.

“That shows you what parents are thinking - they’re looking for different options.”

Loyal parents

Still, premium schools in the UAE enjoy strong loyalty of parents – and only extraordinary circumstances seem to influence that loyalty.

“If people have lost their jobs and they are relocating to where they used to live, they may be wondering, ‘can I get the same quality of schools?’ The one thing that we can’t deny in the UAE is that we have some excellent, world-class schools. So if people are used to that, they may not want to go back to the local curriculum,” Beheshti said.

Fluid situation

She added that it remains a fluid situation for both schools and parents.

On the one hand, “a lot of the school fees are not sustainable for people who have just lost their jobs”, but on the other hand, many schools have already taken significant steps to accommodate families in hardship.

Beheshti said schools have offered a combo of discounts, easy payment options and more scholarships.

“I think a lot of them have done that but it’s hard to predict what else they could do because ultimately schools are businesses and properties are not very cheap in Dubai either.

“I recognise fully that these schools also have payrolls to keep up and they also have to make sure they are not behind on their own debts,” she added.