AQF Views & Voices: Policy & Practice


The Covid-19 Pandemic: A Turning Point for Private Education in the UAE?

Max Eckert


Over the course of the last few weeks, the word ‘crisis’ has been used to refer to a time of great difficulty, danger, or suffering. In a less common usage, a crisis describes a turning point in a disease, or a sequence of events where the possible outcome is either getting better or worse.

With nationwide business and school closures, and a looming global recession, it is unclear how the Covid-19 pandemic will impact for-profit schools, which effectively operate as businesses serving a public interest. Decisions about fees and staffing are likely to follow, which would specifically impact families of lower socioeconomic status across the UAE. The Covid-19 pandemic could indeed mark a turning point for for-profit schools in the UAE as they may struggle not only to make profits but just to cover costs.

In the UAE, a growing share of students are educated in private schools. Dubai leads this trend with over 80% of all students attending private school, and with the number of students attending public school steadily shrinking. Further, the private education sector in the UAE is dominated by for-profit school operators, which run more than 80% of all private schools in the UAE. Since public schools exclusively serve Emirati students and a small number of Arabic-speaking students, private schools are the only option for expatriates. At the top end of the bracket some private schools are charging 100,000AED or more in annual fees.

Previous statements made by education executives, describing education as a ‘recession-proof’ investment fall on eager ears as investors and school operators have made over 7bn AED in profits from private education in previous years. While it is true that studies have demonstrated a rise in U.S. household spending on education during the Great Recession, current predictions for the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic paint a far less rosy picture.In the UAE, the experience over recent years has been that parents tend to get what they pay for. For instance, the largest school chain in the UAE is known for touting its ‘airline model’ approach to education. In this model, students receive an education that is dependent on their parent’s ability to pay. This means that there are clear relationships between fee structures and the quality of education that students receive.

Despite predictions by some school owners that parents would skimp on food in order to send their child to the ‘right’ school, the current dire economic outlook alongside job losses and nationwide school closures may have spoilt families’ appetite for schools at the high-end segment of the market. In previous recessions, those industries that make up a large share of Dubai’s economy, such as aviation, hospitality, and tourism, have felt the slowing demand in the medium to long run. In the case of this pandemic, however, far-reaching shutdowns and layoffs in these sectors have already affected the livelihoods of employees, whose families are now the most vulnerable to high school fees.

One pressing question to ask though is whether a for-profit model of education adequately protects the interests of students, parents and academic staff during this pandemic and the likely subsequent recession.

Over the next few, challenging, months, for-profit schools must respond to the needs of students, parents, teachers, and shareholders, though the order of precedence is anything but clear. While authorities in Dubai have called for a ‘compromise’ between school operators and parents in managing this crisis, the absence of clear government regulations makes laying off ancillary staff a plausible way for school operators to stay profitable. Even though teaching assistants and other non-core personnel may appear more disposable than teachers, students with special needs and those at the lowest end of the socioeconomic spectrum are likely to suffer disproportionately from this. As we go forward, all private schools will need to ensure that they retain their staff whilst at the same time managing costs and potential budget deficits. One of the worst scenarios is schools unable to meet staffing needs come September due to hasty decisions made in the crisis.

For the government, it is also important to consider the exposure that they have to the for-profit private education sector and how, going forward they can ensure that education remains a stable and sustainable sector. With some large players dominating the landscape it may be worth thinking about diversity of options including the incentives for more non-profit schools to set up across the UAE.

As all of us are hoping to return to some kind of normal as soon as possible, let’s take the time to reflect on which parts of the old system we would like to return to and how we might create a new, potentially more equitable normal. A lesson learned from the pandemic’s fallout could be that we should strive to create a financially sustainable and resilient private school system that fosters student academic achievement regardless of profit status.

In our Education in Uncertain Times blog series, the Al Qasimi Foundation explores how COVID-19 is impacting students, teachers, administrators and education in the UAE. It presents insights into the current state of education, but also into policy and funding. Moreover, it offers suggestions for decision-makers and the general public on how to sustain quality education for all students in these uncertain times. If you enjoyed this blog, we encourage you to read the other blogs in our Education in Uncertain Times series.