Behind the Scenes of Competition in an Education Marketplace

The school choice debate often addresses contentious issues that bring a number of emotional arguments to the surface. Often, arguments that reflect core values of education for all and individual rights are juxtaposed. Advocates for school choice talk about the individual right to choose and market-based quality assurances. Advocates for public school talk about public good, national development and equity. The arguments are – of course – more complicated and controversial.

But, in these arguments, access to school is assumed  – even if the quality of the schooling is questionable. For example, most of the debate is now focused on “emerging public school alternatives” such as voucher programs and charter schools that shift resources and promote competition.

So what happens in a place where private school choice and competition is the default? If you want to learn about real school choice – then Dubai is the learning ground.

In Dubai, schools are private and diverse because school choice is the default for the majority expatriate population – there is no public school option. Sounds like a haven for school choice advocates promoting market accountability as the answer to public school problems. However, like any educational landscape, a fully private system also bears the reality of practical issues.

Over the last year, an interesting case has emerged in Dubai. Gems, the largest education provider announced its intention to close a 17-year-old school (17 years in Dubai is established!). Gems claimed it could not continue to operate at the same quality for the same fees. In fact, it claims it can’t possibly offer a minimum quality for under AED15,000 ($4,000). But the government regulations prohibited the desired fee hike of 50%.

Interestingly, the media did not report on parental concerns about a hike from AED10K to AED15K! The media reported on parents concerned about finding any schools with similar quality within the same “fee bracket.” In fact, according to the media, parents wanted to pay more in the face of school closure.

As Gems CEO once explained, Gems schools are like airline classes; economy, business and first class schools all take you to the same destination. But, at the end of last year, Gems CEO admitted that they had been running their “economy” schools at substandard levels. In his words:

For the last five years, we have been sustaining our old schools by compromising on quality.

Currently, there are fee-hike negotiations being made to keep this large school open. But more school closures are threatened and parents are at a loss because the choices are not there! The growth rate of Dubai is simply outpacing the growth rate of good schools.

This example puts a spotlight on the circumstances that pro-choice advocates do not consider as they insist on the benefits of competition to promote quality overall.

Dubai raises questions for organizations like the Alliance for School Choice who want to improve the national K-12 education system by promoting school choice in an educational market. Questions like

How to ensure the minimum standard is respected?

How to address corporate approaches to un-welcomed regulations?

How to regulate for consumer protection without compromising school operator rights?

The only certainty is that Dubai can offer a new depth of insights into the school choice debate!

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