Monday, 13 April 2020

A dispute is brewing between parents and private schools over tuition relief

A dispute is brewing between some parents and private schools over tuition relief: In a poor end to a period that has seen an otherwise successful transition to online learning during covid-19, some parents of students in private schools that teach the national and national language curriculums are demanding deferments and discounts on tuition for the second semester of the 2019-20 academic year. The dispute has already reached the Education Ministry and has even escalated to the House of Representatives. The issue is so far focused on the national school system, and while parents are focusing on transportation and activities fees, a number of operators say that even a small refund could hurt the sector as a whole.

Parents at private, national schools push for deferment of at least 15% of total 2019-20 fees: What’s primarily at issue here is the second installment of tuition fee payments for the academic year. Parents are officially requesting that 40% of that second installment (which amounts to 15% of the overall tuition for the academic year) be either refunded, or deferred to the 2020-21 academic year, a member of one parents association that is lobbying for the move told us last week. If that isn’t possible, they are requesting that school owners forgo the annual tuition hike — which could typically reach 15% as mandated by the ministry — during the next school year, said the source, who wished to remain anonymous.

Refund to cover costs of services “not received during the lockdown,” claim parents: Parents that are lobbying for the cut say that the move is meant to compensate for services and activities they are not receiving, including prepaid transportation and on-campus activities and events, another source from the association tells us. To put this into perspective, bus fees for schools with annual tuition fees ranging between EGP 10-40k can cost between EGP 3,500-5,800 in the 2019-20 year, according to Masrawy. The majority of parents making the request fall within that tuition range, says House Education Committee member Magda Nasr tells Enterprise. Bus fees have typically been an annual complaint, covered frequently in the local press.

Schools say a blanket 15% deferment is unreasonable: The request is not feasible considering that academic services are ongoing and the costs of busing doesn’t come near the amount requested, several private school operators told Enterprise. “Schools are not laying off teachers and teachers’ salaries account for nearly 70% of the overall costs at my school,” one school operator who wished to remain nameless tells us. Badawy Allam, a vice president of the Private School Owners Association, tells us the schools will continue to cover their usual costs and salaries until October without new sources of revenue. The ministry has even asked schools to pay out bonuses to teachers who will supervise end-of-year exams.

E-learning and other costs piling up: Beyond teachers’ salaries, schools have had to pay “substantially” more than last year to upgrade their systems to accommodate e-learning, one school owner says. Any savings that would have come from facilities remaining dormant is eaten away, they added. Furthermore, there are contractual obligations that have been made with suppliers and schools are locked into them, covid or not, says GEMS Egypt CEO Ahmed Wahby.

Bus refunds are also tricky because most schools don’t own the vehicles, Allam adds. According to Allam, many schools have prepaid contracts with third-party providers, and can only process refunds if authorities intervene to help them reclaim the value of those contracts.

Others could be forced to cut costs, and potentially jobs: While some top-tier schools, including GEMS, have recently pledged to not lay off their staff during the crisis, mid-level schools say that may be a valid risk. At least 5,000 out of 7,800 registered private schools are on the lower end of the tuition spectrum, Ahmed El Khatib, head of El Khatib Private Schools, tells Enterprise. A 15% total cut to revenues would add pressure that could result in layoffs, he added. There isn’t as much pressure on international schools, which only number 287 across the country, he noted.

While mostly contained at national language private schools, the issue is already seeping into international schools. “Yes, parents have contacted us requesting refunds,” American International School (AIS) Director Kapono Ciotti told Enterprise. He added that these have mostly been concerning transportation, meal plans, and activity fees. “The school’s board is working on a policy that we believe will be fair and will allow parents to understand the value that they get through school and be able to refund them the services they’re not using,” he tells us.

Int’l schools are considering refunding bus fees and activities: The majority of international school owners we’ve spoken with say that they are at least looking into refunding school bus fees. These include GEMS and AIS. The latter is looking at a policy that will be fair and helpful to parents in this hard economic time with regard to bus, meal plans and activities, Ciotti tells us. El Alsson and Schutz American School have also begun reimbursing parents for activities which have had to be canceled, including field trips, representatives from the schools tell us.

Some schools have also been offering some form of relief to parents and teacher benefits. GEMS, for instance, has extended the payment deadlines for the past fall term by two to three months, Wahby tells us. He added that the school has also upgraded its medical insurance plan to cover covid-related issues.

Int’l schools in the region have already begun to feel the pressure: More than 13,900 people have signed a petition urging GEMS in Dubai to cut fees by 30% for the summer term, arguing that the schools are benefiting from being closed, according to the Financial Times. The school will take a means-tested approach to provide relief to the hardest-hit families. About half of private schools in Dubai have begun offering aid to parents, according to Which School Advisor, an educational information service.

Ministry looking into the matter, hopes to resolve it by August: Parents had been asking the government to intervene, and the Education Ministry is currently exploring the issue, Education Minister Tarek Shawky said last month. The ministry will meet with all stakeholders when exploring the issue and will look at whether the issue extends to international schools, with an eye to resolve it by August, Assistant Education Minister Mahmoud Hassounna tells Enterprise.

The House is also getting involved: In tandem with efforts to lobby the government, parents have managed to push the issue on the House Education Committee’s agenda. The committee will hold hearings on the matter on 29 and 30 April, once the House recovenes, with parents and school owners, committee chair Samy Hashem told us.

Where does the committee stand? It’s on the fence. It’s within the parents’ right to claim refunds for services they will not be receiving, including transportation and on-campus activities and events, committee member Magda Nasr told Enterprise. However, given that teaching will resume online, and that many schools incurred added costs to improve web capabilities, refunds should not be given to academic-related expenses, she said.

Any decision could have far-reaching consequences for the sector: While it may be tempting to point to the example of the UAE private schools, it is worth considering that the move towards e-learning has been costly for the majority of the schools, many of which did not have the right infrastructure to begin with. According to Badawy, all private schools are following Education Ministry guidelines and are being monitored by a ministry committee. He says that schools see that, while parents do have a point when it comes to asking for refunds on buses, a blanket 15% tuition refund could end up hurting private sector employers and threaten teaching jobs. In a time where teacher-to-student ratios in classes are already low, any further shortage of teachers risks not only hurt e-learning, but the sector as a whole after covid-19.

Monday, 13 April 2020

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