The promise of non-profit schools for all children in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries

By Natasha Ridge and Susan Kippels, who prepared a background paper for the Arab States 2019 GEM Report on migration displacement and education

In our recent background paper for the Arab States 2019 GEM Report, we explored how there are a significant number of migrant workers with school-aged children living in the GCC region. In fact, in some of the GCC countries, there are even more migrant students than there are national students. For example, in the UAE, 15-year-old students from migrant backgrounds comprise nearly three quarters of all students.  In the other GCC countries, migrant children of the same age make up between 64% and 17% of all students.

Percentage of students aged 15 in the GCC that are migrants or from migrant backgrounds, 2015

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Note: GEM Report team analysis was based on the 2006 and 2015 PISA and 2015 TIMSS and refers to 15-year-olds, including natives of mixed heritage. Source: Calculated from GEM Report StatLink:

The only schooling option for the majority of migrant children living in the GCC region is private school. This is in part due to language barriers, but also dictated by quotas, fees, and/or other policies related to public school enrollment for non-nationals. The one exception is Bahrain, where any child can enroll in a public school, and, as a result, approximately 50% of the public education system in Bahrain is comprised of non-national students. This is a greater proportion than in any of the other GCC countries.

Growth in the private education sector

Due to the rising number of non-nationals in the region and a growing demand from nationals to enroll in private schools, private school enrollment rates across the GCC region have been rising over the past two decades. Across the GCC region, nearly one third (30%) of all students are in private schools, with the largest proportions enrolled in the UAE (73%). These rates are higher than the percentage of enrollment in private education institutions globally, which are  approximately 18% at the primary level and 26% at the secondary level.  What private schools in the region have in common is that the majority of them are owned and/or operated by for-profit providers. In the UAE, for example, approximately 9 out of every 10 schools are operated as for-profit.

Percentage of private school students in GCC countries (and the total number of students per country, in thousands)

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Note: The figures in the chart include migrant and national students.
Source: Adapted from Hoteit et al. (2018).

The prevalence of the for-profit providers is not surprising given the highly lucrative nature of the market. Currently, estimates suggest that the value of the private education market in the GCC region will reach USD$26 billion by 2023. In Saudi Arabia alone, the private K-12 education industry was valued at USD$5 billion in 2017, and it is estimated to exceed USD$12 billion by 2023. However, little attention has been paid to the implications of this current trend, which encourages and incentivizes for-profit schools, or to the possibility of another model.

For-profit schools and the implications for nations, families, and teachers in the GCC region

Globally there are very few studies that explore what happens when for-profit schools dominate a national education sector. This is probably because they are illegal in some countries, such as Australia at the primary and secondary levels, or account for a small segment of the K-12 market in most others. However, with the widespread presence of for-profit K-12 schools in the GCC countries, the implications of their presence must be considered, especially when a few large chains, such as GEMS Education (founded as Global Education Management Systems), dominate the market. We look forward to the 2021 GEM Report on non-state actors, which will no doubt present new evidence on this issue.

Implications for nations

Countries that have very large numbers of for-profit schools and/or single operators of large chains of schools need to be mindful of what will happen if these schools suddenly close. In Australia, the collapse of the for-profit ABC Learning nursery chain led to a government bailout that cost millions of dollars because they were deemed ‘too big to fail’. In the UAE, GEMS Education currently has more than 45 schools educating over 113,000 students. Should the chain collapse, the UAE government would face significant financial and educational challenges. But it is not only governments who face challenges from a large for-profit education sector. Families and teachers are also affected.

Implications for families and teachers

In another study we carried out exploring private education in the GCC, we found that for-profit schools were characterized by less qualified and/or less experienced teachers, a greater percentage of hidden fees for families, and a higher number of students per class than non-profit schools. Related research also found teachers at for-profit schools were also paid 1.5 to 2 times less and received fewer benefits than those at non-profit schools.

In the words of one teacher working at a for-profit school in the region,The profits of private schools are going to pay investors their yields … There is a tremendous problem when very few profits are going back into the school to support teachers, enhance facilities, provide professional development, hire additional staff, and expand much needed resources. Unfortunately, the majority of profits are going to investors and school owners.”

The promise and potential of non-profit schools for the GCC countries

While for-profit schools are ultimately designed to pay profits/dividends to shareholders and owners, non-profit schools reinvest their profits back into the school. Non-profit schools also tend to have an ethos rooted in the belief and commitment to education as a public good that benefits not only an individual but also their community and the country in which they live. In the GCC region, several of the older non-profit schools were established by foreign missions as a way to support the educational needs of their citizens living in these countries, while other non-profit schools were founded by philanthropists in order to support poorer members of society.

As private school enrollment figures are increasing for both national and migrant students in the GCC region, non-profit private schools represent a quality alternative in the absence of free public education and a more sustainable option to for-profit schools. Moving forward, while the primary bearer of providing the right to education is the government, GCC states may want to consider non-profit schools as promising providers that can help ensure students residing in their countries have access to schools that are not just committed to generating profits but to the building of communities and nations.



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