Classes across continents,education entrepreneur spreads out

Varkey's increasing prominence has also brought greater scrutiny both of his business model and his educational philosophy

Written by New York Times | London | Published:May 28, 2013 3:30 am

When Sunny Varkey was four years old,his parents left him in the care of family members in his native India while they “went to seek green pastures” teaching English as a second language in Dubai in the late 1950s,in what was then a sleepy British protectorate on the southeast coast of the Persian Gulf.

“My parents were brought over by Easa Saleh al-Gurg,who later became the United Arab Emirates ambassador to Great Britain,” he said in a recent interview in London. “Our family came with empty hands,but in those days the UAE was a land of opportunity.”

Initially his parents’ pupils came almost exclusively from local families,but the discovery of oil in Dubai in 1966 brought an influx of foreign workers,many from the Asian subcontinent. Two years later,Varkey’s parents opened Our Own English High School,the first private school in Dubai for Indian students. Meanwhile,Varkey was completing his own education,first at a Catholic boarding school in India and then in Dubai,followed by a year at a college on the Isle of Wight,in Britain.

“I did not study much,” Varkey said. He joined his parents in 1970,just before Dubai gained its independence from Britain,and took over the company in 1980,starting with his parents’ single school in Dubai.

Although he never attended university himself,he now runs GEMS Education,which claims to be the largest private provider of K-12 education in the world,and presides over a network of about 70 schools operating in 18 countries,from the United States to Britain,Egypt to China. His two sons,Dino and Jay,now hold senior positions at the company,making it a three-generation endeavour.

Despite his company’s growing influence,Varkey has long avoided the media spotlight. But with more recent moves into Britain and the United States,that seems to have changed.

Varkey’s increasing prominence has also brought greater scrutiny both of his business model and his educational philosophy. From the beginning,the GEMS schools in Dubai took for granted a kind of ethnic segregation.

“We had an Indian school,we had a Pakistani school. We also opened a British school,” where “we had key British teachers–the head of school,head of curriculum,and so on,as well as a number of Asian teachers,” Varkey said.

The company remains the largest employer of British teachers outside of the United Kingdom,as well as the largest employer of Indian teachers outside of India. Pay scales at each school are linked not to the local economy or the nature of the school,but to salaries in a teacher’s home country.

And while the company boasts that it provides the same high-quality education at its least-expensive schools (where fees are approximately $750 a year) as it does at premium schools (where fees can exceed $40,000),there has been criticism at both ends of the scale.

GEMS announced last year plans to open six private schools in Britain charging between 8,000 and 12,000 pounds—or between $12,000 and $18,000—a year. That works out to roughly one-half to one-third of the price of more prestigious private schools like Eton or Winchester.

When GEMS first came to Britain in 2004,it raised class sizes by as much as a third at a school in Milton Keynes,and parents complained. In 2008,parents with children at the GEMS Jumeirah Primary School in Dubai wrote to Varkey after class sizes were increased. There have also been complaints about sharp increases in school fees and the closure of the Westminster School in Dubai after the country’s school regulator would not raise a cap on private school tuition.

When challenged on class size,Varkey pointed to airlines,which offer first class,business and economy seats on the same plane,or to Mercedes,which produces several classes of cars.

“The difference is facilities,” he said. At Our Own English High School,an Indian girls’ school in Dubai with 10,000 students,tuition is just $2,000 a year. “But every graduate of that school went to university,” he said.

Varkey has ambitious plans for Britain,the United States and Europe. In September,GEMS will open a school in Etoy,Switzerland,following the International Baccalaureate curriculum. However,the legion of South Asian expatriates who have moved overseas remain his core customers. “They don’t have social security,so they have to work their butts off to achieve,” Varkey said.

As long as globalisation continues,“our business will remain recession proof”,he said. He has just completed a $550 million round of financing to help the company continue to expand into countries where “we can deliver a higher quality of education than the state can provide”.

D.D. GUTTENPLAN

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