in the Gulf: The Invisible Hand of Sunny Varkey
December 30th, 2004
Is the rise of for-profit education systems good news
for the Arab world?
Article by Nicholas Nesson
Meet Sunny Varkey, a Dubai-based entrepreneur who made
his fortune with for-profit elementary schools in the
UAE, and whose company also owns a construction firm
and hospitals. We take care of you, says
the founder of the Varkey Group, from the cradle
to the grave.
The Indian-born Varkey is the child of school teachers
who first arrived in Dubai in 1959 a time when
emirate life was little more than desert, with scattered
developments along the coast and inland. Varkeys
parents shortly began teaching English to local students
in Bur Dubai, for a fee of 25 Indian rupees per month,
and that small business grew into Our Own English High
School, which was founded in 1968. Meanwhile, young
Sunny was studying at a boarding school in India, then
went on to complete his education in Britain.
In 1977, Varkey returned to Dubai. After a stint at
a local bank, he opened a small trading company, then
became part owner of the Dubai Plaza Hotel. Meanwhile,
Varkeys parents continued to teach English at
their makeshift institution until, in the early 1980s,
the Dubai authorities told them that they either had
to construct a purpose-built facility or shut down.
Thats when Sunny stepped in and took the
first small steps towards building his vast fortune.
Today, Varkeys for-profit educational empire
run under his Global Education Management Systems
(GEMS) business unit stretches across much of
the globe. Described as an educational management
and consultancy and systems provider, offering total
education management solutions, GEMS manages schools
in the UAE, Qatar, India and Britain, and is looking
to expand in the near future to the United States.
Varkeys venture has proved highly controversial
in Britain, where local councils are objecting to his
plans and have proved hostile to any form of competition
to state-run education. While the Blair government has
been pushing for private-public partnerships in a range
of sectors and while a recent poll in Britain
showed that 53 percent would opt out of public education
if they could afford to doubts have been raised
about how GEMS schools can compete on both price and
quality. In Britain, independent school fees can exceed
£20,000 a year; Varkeys schools will charge
as little as £5,000. How, critics ask, does Sunny
Varkey do it?
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