Once again the BBC gets stuck in to the trials and tribulations of expat life:
A few years ago, competition for places in Dubai’s best international schools was so intense that British expat Jemma Schilbach felt she had to get her two children on the waiting lists for her preferred schools before they were even out of nappies.
A situation to which the average license-fee payer can no doubt relate.
Work ended up taking the family away from Dubai for a couple of years. When they returned in 2014, they were relieved to discover there were plenty more schools to choose from, but there was another issue: cost.
Both Schilbach and her husband, who’d previously worked in jobs where companies paid for children’s schooling, were now self-employed, and would need to pay for their children’s education themselves.
She was impressed with the small class sizes and Foremarke’s reputation, but with tuition fees there starting at 65,000 AED ($18,000) a year, it meant the family had to be more careful about spending to ensure they had the money to send their children, aged five and seven, to the school.
Parents who spend $18k per year on a nursery school for their five year old find they can’t splash out as much as when somebody else was footing the bill. Who knew? Note that these extortionate school fees only get noticed when the parents have to pay themselves.
“We economise on other costs during the year,” says Schilbach, adding that ordering some household items from the UK and closely watching what the family spends on weekends have helped to save pennies. “In our opinion, the money is better spent on educating our children to a high standard.”
And therein lies the whole scam, which is ably propagated by the schools themselves and parents whose status depends on what school their child attends. There is absolutely no need to be spending that kind of money educating children younger than ten or twelve, especially as these aren’t even boarding schools. But hey, it’s your money.
As expatriate contracts change and people accept more flexible benefits, move onto localised employment packages or decide to find their own jobs overseas, finding the money needed for education is a growing challenge for families living abroad. In Dubai, for example, falling oil prices have led to many employers cutting the salaries and benefits packages they are willing to offer their expat staff. It leaves many expats no option but to pay for their children’s schooling themselves, partially or in full.
Well, yes. I am of the opinion that one of the greatest scandals perpetuated by international companies is to dress up expatriate positions (particularly those in the oil industry) as family-friendly and encourage men and women of child-rearing age to embark on careers where overseas postings are mandatory. They effectively promised that entire families could go abroad without any of the traditional drawbacks, taking advantage of the various international booms that were running full-pelt at the time to pay for it all: schools, villas, regular flights home, etc. A generation or two ago there was none of this: expat positions were either set up for men who would leave the family behind (and/or find a new ‘wife’ in a bar upon arrival), or the family was expected to rough it. Things obviously improved since the time Sir Arthur Grimble wrote A Pattern of Islands, but I know old-school Shell expats who lived in places like Gabon and Bintulu who say things were…primitive.
But then the financial, property, oil and gas, and other industries boomed at the same time a generation of women graduates entered the workforce expecting full careers compatible with raising a family, and the international companies – egged on by powerskirts in HR – simply told them they could have the lot. The companies themselves will claim that they needed to offer these packages in order to attract the right people, but I don’t buy it. Personally, I think a lot of these expat policies in the multinationals were put in place by the managerial classes who wanted a tax-free salary in an exotic place without any downsides. The shareholders’ interests didn’t even get a look in.
But now times have changed and what we have is a generation of people mid-career who have gotten used to these all-inclusive family packages now finding they’re no longer available. Whoops. The money just isn’t there any more, but there is another factor at play which I doubt international companies even admit exists: the locals. Places like Dubai, Malaysia, Nigeria, Russia, etc. have changed in the last decade or two and now there are plenty of locals (or locally based people) who can fill the middle management and senior technical positions. As local hires these employees will not get school fees paid for their kids, they have to use their own salaries. These staff might not object to one or two very senior managers getting a full expat package which includes school fees, but they will when they find a mid-level engineer or financial analyst is being handed $18k per year so their toddler can go to a posh private school run by a pencil-necked Brit with a prominent Adam’s apple and a cut-glass accent. The subsidiary itself may also be a joint-venture with local ownership, and the stakeholders might ask why they are paying for the children of wealthy expatriates to go to fancy schools when their own kids are going to the local state school.
And right on cue:
The cost of education is among the most popular topics of discussion on BritishMums. “It’s an employer’s market,” says Schilbach, who founded the site in 2012. “The old-time expat contracts are few and far between these days.”
This month, in a survey by HSBC involving nearly 8,000 expat parents, 62% said it was more expensive to raise a family overseas than at home. Some 58% mentioned that the cost of childcare, in particular, was more expensive.
Well, yes. Maintaining a Western standard of family life outside Western countries is expensive. The trick is to lower your expectations a little.
A separate survey by Singapore-based advisory service ExpatFinder.com, which covered 98 countries and 707 international schools, found fees rose 3.43% last year compared with the year before.
Yes, it’s a racket. The schools guilt-trip the parents and tap into their “my child must have the absolute best” mentality by implying they will be failing their offspring if they don’t cough up extortionate fees to enroll them in their institutions.
The most expensive schools for international education were in China – median fees for children aged 11-12 came in at $36,400 a year – followed by Switzerland ($28,300) and Belgium ($27,800), according to the survey.
The reason it is expensive in China (and Moscow) is because the international schools are full of the children of wealthy locals. The reason they are expensive in Switzerland and Belgium is because of the number of international organisations that are based there, meaning the costs can just be dumped back on the taxpayers somewhere. Whereas I can understand the difficulties of putting expat kids into a Chinese state school system, there is nothing wrong with Belgian or Swiss schools. Yes, there are arguments to be made over curricula and language but hey, you’re abroad: what do you expect? If the kids can’t adapt, then stay at home. I don’t see why taxpayers (or shareholders) should be expected to cough up thousands of dollars per year so that toddlers can avoid having to adapt to a different culture and school system. Case in point:
Emma McHugh, a 39-year-old mother of three and Schilbach’s co-founder at BritishMums, is in the process of returning to Dubai from Abu Dhabi. Her children will start at Safa Community School in September, where tuition fees start at 47,000 AED ($12,800).
While her choice wasn’t all about the cost – Emma felt the school had the feel of a typical UK primary with an emphasis on nurturing and care
Nobody is forcing people to take these jobs and bring their families with them. If it is so important that her little darlings attend a school with the “feel” of a typical UK primary then perhaps she should have stayed in the UK?
But international education in Britain, Hong Kong, the US, Singapore and Australia also cost more than $20,000 a year. Schools may also charge extra for uniforms, examinations, extra-curricular activities and even books.
What we’re seeing here is children’s education being used as a status marker. Anyone who pays $20k per year for a kid to go to a private day-school in Australia is either extremely rich or an idiot.
“Schooling has become very expensive over the years,” says Sébastien Deschamps, ExpatFinder’s chief executive and founder. “That’s a challenge not only for the expatriate, but also for HR professionals because they still need to attract foreign talent and find ways to keep them.”
What he means is HR professionals (stop laughing at the back!) find it difficult to apply their ludicrous criteria of only recruiting from the very top universities, meet diversity quotas, and retain only the meekest and most compliant employees who they can bully and cajole into submission by threatening their career prospects at every point and turn. The last thing they want is a competent single bloke with little to lose turning up and trying to get things done.
When the oil price crashed in 2014 I thought the game was up for expatriate families in my industry and it would soon revert to being mostly local hires with the odd senior manager and a gaggle of single blokes living out of Porta-Cabins. I still don’t think I was wrong in that regard. The big players are still hanging on as their army of employees shriek over any changes to their entitlements, but it’s just a matter of time. The locals have gotten better, and there simply isn’t the money any more. The scrapping of the school fees is an early casualty of this new reality.