BY Mohamed Iqbal
Commercialisation of education is an issue being debated worldwide. It has surfaced in Qatar as well, with the soaring cost of schooling putting financial pressure on thousands of low and middle income families here.
Complaints are galore about the continuous rise in private school fees as well as the prices of textbooks, uniforms and school stationery items. Official data indicates that such concerns are not exaggerated.
According to the latest Consumer Price Index (CPI) released by the Ministry of Development Planning and Statistics, cost of education in the country has shot up by a striking 9.1 percent in a year until last September.
The goods and services related to education have become more expensive, which has contributed to this significant hike, said the report.
Generally house rents are believed to be the most affected by the rising inflation in the country, but the data shows that inflation in education sector has surpassed the rents that saw an increase of only 6.1 percent during the period.
The Index providing data until the end of September has coincided with beginning of the new academic year in Qatar, that saw more complaints from parents about the rising school fees and other educational overheads.
Private education sector in the country has witnessed a rapid growth over the years and private schools now have more students compared to the state-backed Independent schools.
According to the 2011-2012 statistics released by the Supreme Education Council (SEC) last week, there were 1,14,500 students enrolled in 178 private schools against the 94,005 students in 177 Independent schools.
Every year, a high number of private schools seek permission from the SEC to hike their fees. This year, the SEC allowed 28 private schools and kindergartens to raise their fees, of the total 130 institutions that sought permission. The decision invited criticism from parents, aired through newspapers, social networking sites and the official media, especially the Qatar Radio.
Many citizens, angered by the disparities in the fees of Qatari and non-Qatari students in some International schools even launched a campaign against the SEC on the social media.
Reacting to such complaints, the SEC said that it was working on some new regulations governing private school fees. In future, the students’ academic performance and the quality of educational services provided by the school will also be considered while studying requests from schools seeking fee hike, said the SEC.
Defending its decision allowing a high number of schools to increase their fees, the SEC said that the financial status of the schools was also taken into consideration, among other factors. The regulatory body went to the extent of saying that some schools had been complaining that they could not survive without a fee hike- a statement that drew the wrath of many parents.
SEC categorically stated that no school will be allowed to impose any additional fees or make them part of the tuition fees without its approval. It also urged parents to bring it into its notice, if they come across any such violation.
Despite such assurances, many parents feel that there is the need for stricter monitoring of private schools, especially in terms of fees.
“My children are studying in an international school and the government is paying QR28,000 as school fees for each of them. However, every time, we see the fees and other expenses going up under some pretext. Where are the rules restricting schools from increasing the fees? There is no control, no monitoring,” Jassim Al Sulaiti, a Qatari citizen told this daily.
He said the rise in building rents was a reason cited by many schools for increasing the fees, and this single factor is affecting not only education but many other segments also.
“Many of my friends are paying much more than what I am paying as school fees and are continuously complaining about that,” he added.
Not only the school fees, but the prices of text books, uniforms and school stationery items are also going up significantly, say the parents.
“Every year we see our education expenses going up by 10 to 12 percent. The school would come up with new ways and excuses to collect money from students,” lamented a Syrian, father of two children enrolled in an Arab private school.
“Last year we spent QR500 on text books and this year we had to shell out QR750… I have a friend who has two children in an Arab private school. Last year he paid QR15,000 as tuition fees for each child and this time, the school was demanding QR20,000 for the younger child and QR25,000 for the elder,” he added.
“The schools are collecting more money but not raising the salaries of their teachers, which is reflecting badly on the quality of education,” he said.
“Education has become very expensive in Qatar. We have changed the school three times. Currently we are paying QR21,000 per year as school fees for one child and we can not afford to pay any more,” lamented a Pakistani mother of two children studying in an international school.
Many parents point out that there is no clear criteria in deciding the fee structure. There are wide variations in the fees from one school to another. There is no semblance of uniformity in the fee structure of schools following the same curriculum and academic standards.
Indian schools here have been cited as an example. All of them are following the New Delhi-based Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) curriculum. The Three pioneering Indian schools- MES, Ideal and Shantiniketan- have a lower fee structure compared to the other schools, especially DPS, Birla Public School and the Doha Modern Indian School.
“The difference is not negligible. The fee is almost double in some schools in the high-end category. Surprisingly, this rarely reflects in the academic achievements. Schools with a lower fee structure sometimes produce better results,” said an Indian parent, with two children studying in DMIS.
International schools and those catering to the Arab communities have a higher fee structure, compared to the Asian community schools, but the higher fees in many cases do not result in a higher standard of education. A number of Arab students opt for Asian schools, despite the linguistic and cultural differences because they believe that they impart a better education at relatively low cost.
The SEC move to make the students’ academic achievements a criterion for deciding on fee hike requests assumes significance in this context, but how this is going to be done is still not explained.
As per the rules, the schools are not permitted to impose any fee on students without approval from the SEC. However, many schools are allegedly making huge profits by selling uniforms and text books, without including them in the school fees.
Official of a leading outlet in Doha selling books and school stationery items said he used to bring text books from India but stopped the business due to stiff competition from Indian schools here.
“Most Indian schools here are importing text books from India directly and selling them to their students. We lost our business to these schools,” he said.
Following complaints from various circles, the SEC has banned private schools from selling text books and note books in their premises. To overcome this rule, some schools have set up shops elsewhere in the city under their direct or indirect patronage.
The schools would force their students to buy text books, note books and school uniforms from their own stores or from shops that belong to them. And the prices are exorbitantly high, the parents say.
“Last week I bought a text book for my daughter studying in Class IV in an Indian school. I paid QR29 for the book that originally cost Rs100 (QR6 approximately),” said an Indian, father of three school-going children.
“We know that there are freight charges and other expenses involved when importing books from India. But this is no justification for a 400 percent hike in the prices,” he added.
Recently a Qatari woman while participating in a popular programme on Qatar Radio — Watanee Al Habeeb, Sabahal Khair — complained that the international school, where her children were enrolled was not allowing students to use old text books and was forcing them to buy new set of books from the school every year.
The SEC has instructed schools to allow students to buy uniforms from any place they prefer. The school’s job is only to specify the type and the colours of the uniform. The schools have also been asked not to choose complicated shades for the uniform thus forcing students to buy certain brands at higher prices. Some schools are allegedly flouting such rules and have tied up with textile shops to make some extra money.
Families are at the receiving end when schooling becomes more and more expensive and the rules fail to curtail profit mongers in education sector.