The scandal of UAE school fees

(Image for illustrative purposes).

I am used to losing money, in fact I am quite good at it. Clothes I don’t need, food I can’t eat, gadgets I don't really want, even holidays I knew deep down I would hate.

But each time, no matter how big the loss, I have been able to comfort myself with the small fact that it has been entirely my own fault. Nobody has tried to pull a fast one over me.

Until, that is, I decided to apply for my three-year old son to join a UAE school. From school to school, I have been given the runaround – and ultimately, I have had money taken from me which I will never see again. If it happened in any other industry, it would be a national scandal. Yet for some reason, the education sector appears to get away with it without anyone blinking an eyelid.

Before I delve into the wider issues, here is a brief summary of my own experience (one I know that is being shared by thousands of parents across the country). When my son was less than a year old, in October 2010, I applied for him to join various schools in Dubai. The plan was he would start in September 2013, but given the high demand for places, I was told to apply many years in advance, and to several different schools.

Easy enough, except this comes with a catch: almost every private school in Dubai charges a registration fee, purely for the privilege of applying to join. The amount is often as high as AED500 (US$136). But regardless of whether you get a place or not, you never get this money back - it is, I was told, part of processing fee.

One of the schools I applied to is one of the most prestigious in Dubai, which has had nothing less than “outstanding” ratings by the KDHA. They told me back in October 2010 that I was one of the first parents to apply for a place and so had a good chance. They asked me for the AED500 in cash, which I handed over. I also handed over similar amounts to various other schools.

Nearly three years on, not a single of the schools I applied to has come back with an offer of a place. Not one has even bothered to tell me I don’t have a place. I rang the school above with the “outstanding” ratings last week, and after several emails and phone calls, eventually got through to the registrar.

“Ah yes, sorry, we only had 80 places this year and 70 of those went to siblings, so you didn’t get a place,” she told me.

Was the school ever going to bother letting me know, I asked?

“No,” she said. “We only tell you if you have a place.”

Strange I wasn’t told this in October 2010 when the school was only too happy to take my cash. But given the school has not even bothered to email me once, and it appears I never had chance of a place there, what was my AED500 spent on?

“So I can answer the phone to you,” the school told me, before adding: “Wages have to be paid.”

Really? Is that what we have come to? A school in the UAE, in 2013, charges AED500 to answer the phone? What incredible arrogance. Who do these people really think they are? Estate agents?

Let’s say, for example, that 500 other parents applied for a place without success? That would equate to a staggering AED250,000 (US$68,000) for doing absolutely nothing. Oh, sorry, for answering the phone. How much are private schools making across the UAE by charging these fees? I know for a fact that many schools have literally hundreds of children on the waiting list, having collected AED500 from each one. The figures could run into millions of dollars each year.

I have spoken to many other parents and many have forked out around AED2,500 in application fees  - and most have been unsuccessful in getting any place. We have been told that most places are already taken by companies, preference given to siblings, or anyone with good connections. Did you send your kid to a nursery also owned by the same school? If not, tough luck, thanks for the cash.

I know of one parent who has a receipt for one school showing that back in 2010 when she made the application, she was third in the queue. Yet three years on she hasn’t secured a single place for her child. Like me, she has thrown thousands of dirhams in the dustbin. But where did all this cash go? Are schools really claiming that it costs AED500 to process an application for a place that probably never existed in the first place? How much can it cost to enter someone’s details on a computer, and then not have to bother calling them three years later?

If, however, schools want to hide behind the KHDA guidelines and claim they are legally entitled to taking this money (which they are), then they need to be transparent about what is happening to the money: exactly what did they charge AED500 for? How big was the original waiting list? If there was never a chance of getting a place, why are schools still taking the money?

What the schools are doing is completely wrong. They should refund all the money to parents who do not get a place, and they should refund it now. 

* I rang the school in question above and they have since offered to refund my AED500. I suggest all parents do the same.

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