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Education Ministry Owes Dh170m in Utility Bills

Afshan Ahmed, The National
June 07, 2012

The Ministry of Education says it cannot pay more than Dh170 million in utility and transport bills.

By the end of the academic year the ministry will owe more than Dh100m to the electricity and water authorities, and more than Dh72m to Emirates Transport, which provides services to all government schools.

Ali Al Suwaidi, the assistant under secretary at the ministry, yesterday said it was impossible to meet the costs from the present education budget of Dh4.6 billion.

Mr. Al Suwaidi said the ministry would ask the FNC for between Dh100m and Dh120m extra a year in a separate budget set aside for electricity and water.

He said the debts had mounted since a decision by the Ministry of Finance more than five years ago to make individual ministries responsible for such costs.

But Mr. Al Suwaidi did not say how much of the Dh172m was accrued in the past year, or how the ministry planned to deal with the outstanding transport costs.

Last year the budget was Dh4.6bn, down from Dh7.2bn in 2010.

"It is not possible to pay for electricity and water out of our current budget," said Mr. Al Suwaidi. "The budget factors in the necessary education initiatives we need to invest in, not such costs."

The ministry ran a surplus last year, but he said this would go towards expanding successful educational programmes, teacher training and renovations, rather than utility bills.

"We should not be responsible for paying [utilities] out of our budget," Mr. Al Suwaidi said. "We are responsible for purely education costs."

It was unclear exactly what would happen if the ministry's request were turned down, although he suggested it would allow the bills to mount rather than cut back on spending.

Experts say part of the reason power bills are piling up is a lack of accountability.

The ministry pays utilities for public schools, so most head teachers are unaware of their electricity and water bills.

Dr. Mohamed Mohamed, the assistant professor of water resources and environmental engineering at UAE University, warned costs would mount if schools remained unaware of their water and power use.

"They do not receive bills," Dr. Mohamed said.

"The best way is to set a certain amount within their given budget for these payments and then monitor their consumption."

He said if schools went beyond that spending limit they should be held accountable.

Dr. Natasha Ridge, the Executive Director of the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, said that the ministry needed to rework the way it allocated funds.

"We need to know how well the budget is managed and where is it being put to use," Dr. Ridge said.

She suggested the ministry should provide funds based on the number of students and grant more autonomy to schools.

"They must adopt a more decentralised approach and give school heads further training on how to manage budgets," Dr. Ridge said. "That will bring greater efficiency."

Experts say a tightening of education expenditure over the years has hampered reform in Dubai and the Northern Emirates.

Some projects, such as the Madaras Al Ghad, an initiative to improve standards of English and teaching in government schools, have had to be reduced because of the amount of resources it required.

Attracting teachers, especially male ones, also remains a problem because the ministry has not been able to raise salaries to the levels offered by other government organisations.