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Getting What You Pay for From a Private Education

Published on: May 2009​
Author:
Genre: Education​ Category: Op eds​
The release of the annual report of the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) marks an important step forward in improving the quality of education in Dubai and the UAE. Part of what makes the KHDA endeavour so important is its monitoring and regulation of the private education sector. In light of the recent dispute between the GEMS group, which runs 26 private schools in the UAE, and KHDA it is worth examining why governments have an important role to play in private education.

According to the latest UNESCO figures, government spending on education worldwide totals nearly $2 trillion a year. It is only relatively recently that the private sector realised the potential profits to be made. Globally, there has been a steady increase in the number of companies specialising in educational services.

And private companies not only run private schools, but increasingly also are involved in running public schools and advising governments on how to run school systems. Examples of all of these can be found in Britain, the US and now in the UAE, where we have a large private school system, public-private partnerships and a growing use of private firms to plan education strategies.

But what does this mean for parents? First, the KHDA report tells us 85 per cent of students in Dubai are in private schools. Secondly, we know that non-nationals are typically not able to attend public schools. So for private providers of education in Dubai, there is a captive market. And as private companies acquire more schools, consumers – parents and students – face less and less choice about fees, teachers, leadership and school quality in general.

Private schools become more generic and less specialised, and budgets and fees presumably are managed in a way to maximise profits. If there is a financial crisis such as the one we are faced with now, the increased costs are passed on to parents or schools are simply closed.

The historical experience with the use of large-scale, for-profit education providers has not been good. In Australia and the US, governments have been forced to bail out companies that failed to responsibly manage large numbers of schools.

Private providers are faced with none of the issues of the public sector, they are beholden to no one but their owners or shareholders, and they have no moral obligation to the community they serve, to the country or to the city where they are based.

Small private schools have to cater to the market and keep parents happy; they cannot treat their clients lightly. But when private providers manage a multitude of schools, or when the majority of students cannot attend the public system, such as in the UAE, parents are at a distinct disadvantage.

Parents select private schools based on two factors: quality and price. Many will compromise slightly on quality in order to pay a price they can afford. But when a school increases fees to the order of 90 per cent, as proposed by the Gems-managed Modern High School, it is a question how many parents can still afford to send their children there. However, it is no simple matter to change school.

Not only do many parents not have the option to send their children to a public school, there is also only a limited number of private schools in the UAE and places may not be available. Private providers in the UAE know this and they know they have, at least in the short term, the upper hand.

The school inspections conducted by KHDA hold private providers accountable for the quality of education they offer, and by making fee increases contingent upon quality, the KHDA is also ensuring that private schools do not take advantage of parents. It is in the best interests of the UAE as a whole for local governments to be involved in the private-education sector. The children who attend private schools comprise the majority of children in the UAE, and also include an ever-growing number of Emiratis.

Corporations are driven by profit but what drives the provision of education is much, much more. Education does not only benefit the individual but also benefits society. And schools do not only serve to educate students for future careers, they also create good citizens and responsible members of society. Many of the benefits from schooling therefore accrue to us all, whether we have children or not. And when we realise that the benefits of education are more than personal, it becomes in the best interest of governments to ensure quality in both the public and private education sectors.

While the private sector may be more efficient in some areas, there are two key areas in which government provision has always been deemed essential – education and health, both of which accrue social benefits. When we involve private companies in running public schools or in deciding the direction of reforms of school systems, we are on questionable grounds. We are trusting in firms that may have little experience in education, that may have no long-term investment in the development of the nation and that are working in order to maximise their own gains.

The efforts of the Knowledge and Human Development Authority, while probably not perfect, at least point to an honest model for education reform. They have inspected schools, participated in international benchmarking and now they have consolidated all of this into their report. They are providing an essentially free report on the state of education in Dubai which can be used to guide policy reforms not only in Dubai but in the whole UAE. The KHDA is also building local capacity that frees them from the tyranny of consultants.

Education is too important to be delegated. It needs local involvement and ownership.

Natasha Ridge is a visiting research fellow at the Dubai School of Government.

This article was originally printed in The National. It can be accessedhere.

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