Are School Fees Expensive?

Mark Turner

As we begin the process of planning for next year’s budget a question that often crops up is about the relative value of school fees – a sad fact of life for any independent institution like SMUS.

I’m sure that every parent that has ever made the sacrifice of an investment in education will tell you, “school fees are very expensive!” And so they are. No argument. I feel particularly for the families who are paying two, three, or in one case, five times.

But let’s take a closer look at this question with the benefit of a little research. When one reviews SMUS’s fees against our other independent competitors around the world, across Canada and particularly in BC, we appear very much in line – in fact our day fee suddenly looks very reasonable indeed. Add in the fact that our mission statement says we ‘seek excellence’ and it becomes clear that this is not a bargain basement operation but one that sets out to be best in class. My experience in the UK and in establishing other schools internationally after considerable market analysis is that our fees are fairly positioned. I would even go so far to say very good value when one considers the quality of our academic program, vast range of opportunities and a faculty that by all accounts care deeply. With my fresh eyes I can’t see another independent school on the horizon that can trump us for value. To compare us with the public schools is another topic, which I will address in another paper.

So why do fees continue their inexorable rise? The simple answer is inflation. We seek to recruit and retain the best faculty available. Salaries and benefits are 64% of our cost base, so salary rises are a direct contributor. In Victoria particularly, the cost of building projects, maintenance and other services have been affected by significant cost pressure, as we know from the Sun Centre experience. Aspiring to excellence does not come cheap.

Twenty-five years ago as a new Head of School I was asked what would be a reasonable expectation in terms of planning for future fee rises. Then I said 5% per annum. By good fortune and guess work rather than careful scientific analysis I was about right. Over the years I have seen 7% even 8% rises and two years of 2%, but most have been in the range of 3.5% to 5%. I don’t see anything in the future to suggest that this will come down anytime soon. ‘Plan for the worst, hope for the best’ is a useful mantra.

So is it all bad news? Not entirely. I note that in Victoria the average house price is approximately $850,000 and has risen over the last 10 years by a staggering 400%. This means that all those fortunate enough to have equity in property will be considerably ‘more liquid’ and better off than they were. By some measures school fees are very good value!

As an educator with three decades of experience, I still maintain education is the best investment and the best inheritance you can give anyone. It can’t drop in value, be stolen or broken; it is literally the gift that goes on giving. Researchers have shown a good education has a three-generational positive impact. In Proverbs 3 we are told “wisdom is more precious than gold.” You are buying opportunity for your great grandchildren.

For those who need convincing, compare the lifetime earnings advantage of independent school students compared with others. Even the accountants will say it more than pays for itself.

More important by far, however, is the intellectual curiosity and lifelong learning habits that mean SMUS graduates are ‘interested and interesting.’ They will be equipped to provide much-needed leadership to the professions and communities they will contribute to.

That notwithstanding, I see it as one of my main responsibilities together with the board, to ensure that fee revenue is well spent and clearly accounted for. I shall be keen to identify savings and share costs wherever possible, but if we are to pursue excellence in its wider context my advice is exactly the same as it was 25 years ago – budget for 5% annual incremental increases and you will not be disappointed.

Oh – and another thing about school fees – it is a wonderful moment when they stop. I remember it well, our family had some cash for the first time in ten years!


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