The Tuition Cap Distraction

The government’s plans to introduce a tuition fee cap for private schools diverts attention away from the far more pressing need to raise public education standards.

By Jawad J. Abbassi

The draft bylaw that classifies private schools and puts caps on their tuition fees based on their classification is misguided. The government seems to think it has the recipe for optimizing private sector education. It is wrong.

The private schools sector is a competitive and for profit sector that should be left free of government meddling in setting the prices of the educational services provided. Private school owners tie up expensive real estate to provide much needed educational services. They also pay taxes, create jobs, and incur major operational costs. They have a right to seek a respectable return on investment. Otherwise they are better off selling that real estate to housing projects and exiting the educational sector all together. Making a profit does not preclude schools from offering good education.

In 2013, 1.726 million students attended government, quasi government, and private schools in Jordan. Almost 70 percent of students are enrolled in public schools, 24.6 percent go to private schools, and 6.5 percent attend UN-funded UNRWA schools in refugee camps. The total funding of government schools totaled JD758 million in 2013.

Overcrowding remains a problem in government and UNRWA schools. Some 8 percent of public schools, and 90 percent of UNRWA schools, still use the double shifts system where students are split between a morning and an afternoon shifts. In private schools, double shifts do not exist.

Comparing education standards between public and private education is tricky. Despite repeatedly contacting the Ministry of Education to ask for the overall Tawjihi pass rates for private and public schools separately, I was told this data couldn’t be released to me, as if it was a state guarded secret. Indicatively, this year, 342 public schools had a zero percent pass rate in Tawjihi, while all but one of the top scorers in the scientific stream came from private schools.

Reliance on private schools varies by region in Jordan. In 2013, private schools had 425,000 students across Jordan, with the majority being in Amman, where only 55 percent of students attend government schools ( the lowest rate in the country). While in Mafraq 92 percent of students attend government schools (the highest rate in the country).

Government schools in Jordan are not free. On average, they effectively collected a tuition fee of JD637 per student in 2013. These tuition fees are paid by tax payers (government tax receipts), donor countries (aid funds), and future tax payers (Jordan’s public debt), that fund the government’s budget.

Setting price caps in a fully competitive sector is a bad policy. The notion that offering educational services must not be profit seeking, or self sustaining, could also result in a much reduced supply of private schools. Furthermore, price caps, if set well-above average tuition fees may actually backfire and result in higher tuition fees as schools raise fees citing the government approved tuition cap. Government oversight of private schools is of course still needed. Schools must abide by rules and regulations that ensure respectable educational standards are followed.

Naturally, tuition fees of private schools remain an issue for parents. On this, the government can help by mandating 12-year tuition fees contracts. In this framework, parents would be given the full tuition fees scale for all grades when their children enroll in the school. The school would be allowed to increase fees for already enrolled students by a maximum rate every year (capped at the official inflation rate of that year). But each year, private schools will be free to change their tuition fees scale for all new students. This is especially suitable because good word of mouth is influential in enhancing the school’s reputation and brand. If the school sets its tuition fees rates unreasonably high, parents of prospective new students will shop around for other options. While students already enrolled in the school will be shielded by the 12-year tuition contract.

A final point on accountability: Badly run private schools will never be sustainable. Parents who pay tuition fees are much more likely to move their kids to different schools if they feel they are not getting good value for money. Private schools that lose money will eventually go out of business. Yet in government schools funding is guaranteed regardless of academic results and students are a captive audience with little options of changing schools. It’s in introducing accountability and raising standards in government schools that the efforts of the Ministry of Education should be focused, not on meddling with private schools tuition whose results far outshine those of the government ones.