In this interview, Mr Varkey looks at his family’s past and to its future, to discuss GEMS Education's journey and roadmap for schools in the UAE and beyond. He describes how the education group's long heritage enables it to spot “patterns and movement” that shape opportunities in the much-changed education sector of 2021. When it comes to international expansion, Mr Varkey strikes a cautious note and cites the need for a “return to normalcy” before pressing ahead with new projects.
With schools still coming to terms with the impact of the global pandemic, the UAE has seen many reducing their fees, especially within Dubai’s premium school market. Mr Varkey admits he is concerned over the “sustainability” of such practices, but is confident in the adaptability of his own organisation, which, he explains, has its roots firmly in “affordable, high quality” schools. Few operators, he says, know how to deliver a quality education in the value fee end of the market.
Mr Varkey also predicts a distinct shift in the choices parents will make coming years, suggesting a move away from “mono-cultural” schools to a more diverse, international education.
To understand the future for GEMS, it is clear, though, that we first need to look at its past…
One in particular springs to mind. At the age of four years old, I was travelling home from one of our schools with our family driver. As we pulled out, I decided to open the door. To this day, I have no idea why I would do something so dangerous! I was taken directly to my grandmother and she scolded me as I had never been scolded before, right in front of lots of other adults in her office. I went home, crying to my mother, desperately upset. But what I learned that day was powerful. My grandmother taught me that there is no entitlement, no privilege.
Faith is incredibly important to our family and she taught me that under God’s eyes, everyone is one and the same. Throughout her life, whether my grandmother was talking to one of our bus drivers or a Head of State, she was incredibly consistent, treating everyone with humility, warmth and love. She would say “never forget who you are, never forget where you came from and never lose your faith in God”. Those simple tenets carry our family to this day.
My grandmother was a giant, a force of nature! Her legacy lies at the heart of everything we do. My grandfather was the intellectual, he was all about the rigour and the content… but my grandmother was about the humanity and potential of our students. That legacy is carried though into the purpose of GEMS today.
I like to use examples from my grandparents lives with my own children. What people don’t realise is that my family arrived from India on ships and waded across water to get to shore, before walking for five hours to get to their new home. That’s how this all started. So, when my son comes asking for a new computer, we break that down into how hard he will need to work to save up for it. I want my children to have that real sense of responsibility that comes directly from their grandparents.
Honestly, I think for my grandparents, that first school was already more than they would ever have ever dreamed of. The reason it was called “Our Own High School” is because it was literally “Our Own”… The name is a badge of pride!
We were from a lower middle-class family in the south India. Did they ever conceive that we would be where we are today? Probably not. I think you have to give the global impact of GEMS to my father, and my grandmother was incredibly proud of him for what he has achieved.
Well, work ethic is certainly not lost on our family! For my grandparents, enrolment season was about going door to door to spread the word about the new school. My father used to drive the school bus in the early days, everyone had their part to play. If I look at how GEMS came about, my grandfather was the mind, my grandmother was the heart and my father is the engine that drives the business. These traits are embedded into the organisation and I can’t ever see a scenario where we would stop being entrepreneurial.
Looking ahead, I would say that we are feeling cautiously optimistic. The leadership of the UAE has been resolute and clear in the way that they have managed the Covid-19 pandemic. I do think this [Covid-19] is going to be with us for some time, but it is what it is. We will be looking ahead with a real focus on technology in our schools and an optimism about the UAE in general.
Just as in many organisations, we are carefully scrutinising what we are doing from a project perspective. While I am pleased with how the business has coped with the pandemic, it has certainly had an impact on the business, so any real capital allocation decisions can only really happen when there is a return to normalcy. From a bricks and mortar perspective, any growth will be more measured than in the past. That is by virtue of where the local market is, where the global economy is and where we see opportunities.
As an organisation, we have the benefit of a lot of data. We can see patterns and movement that perhaps others can’t. We expect that there will continue to be demand for great quality schools at a value price point, such as GEMS Founders. Within the broader economic context, that is perhaps unsurprising, but do many providers know how to deliver quality at a value fee point? I don’t think so. GEMS, well, we have grown with this country. We started with affordable, high quality schools. Most providers start with premium schools, because they don’t know how to deliver quality at say AED 20,000. We do!
Looking at the market, we are seeing significant discounting in the premium sector because of oversupply and over capacity. That will impact certain providers, because discounting fees by say 20-30%, only serves to double the time it takes for you to reach break-even in a new school. There is an inherent danger in those practices because it is not sustainable.
We definitely see that curriculum choices are impacted by broader geopolitical factors. For example, we see a direct correlation between underlying demand for American curriculum schools with the leadership of the US and US macro foreign policy. Parents are typically making a curriculum choice based upon where you aspire for your child to go off to university, so politics can be a big driver.
For the future, I do believe that mono-cultural schools are going to be of diminishing popularity in the next few years. There are younger parents today who do not want a mono-cultural environment for their child. It’s a trend that is coming slowly, but it is coming. Families want a diverse environment for their children. After all, we live and work in a place where diversity is celebrated and we see that diversity working every day in our schools.
WhichSchoolAdvisor.com was talking to Dino Varkey. Mr Varkey was also interviewed separately by our sister site, SchoolsCompared.com. Click here for its interview with the CEO of GEMS Education.