International schools in Thailand have returned to online teaching, but most of them continue to charge full fees for a service some parents regard as inferior.
Meanwhile, head of schools and other senior school officials of some of Thailand’s largest international schools have been avoiding answering questions from TIS Monitor.
As Thailand keeps battling the latest surge in Corona virus cases, international schools in the kingdom have once again been ordered to switch to online learning. While this shifts a lot of the burden of teaching from schools to the parents, most parents seem to have accepted the situation as necessary, given the ongoing crisis.
Frustration is however growing among parents as they are required to pay full tuition fees, while at the same time doing some work that teachers otherwise would have been doing.
”We are paying a lot of money for classroom-based teaching and great campus facilities, and now we don’t have that. Why should we pay full fees?” one parent writes in a message posted on a closed online forum.
The situation could also cause an unexpected financial burden on some families, where parents can no longer fully work as they need to take care of their children.
Our attempts to reach school management
When Covid-19 first struck in Thailand last year, starting from March international schools turned to online teaching for several months. During this period many schools offered a reduction in tuition fees, typically of 5-10% for older students, and even more for younger children.
In contrast when in April this year schools again had to turn to online teaching – a situation which at time of writing is still ongoing – TIS Monitor has heard few reports of international schools offering discounts.
When TIS Monitor tried to contact some of the largest and most high profile international schools in Bangkok to ask questions about their fee policies during the ongoing campus closure, no head of school or senior school representatives were available for comment.
TIS Monitor has reached out to Mr Chris Seal, principal at Shrewsbury International School, river campus, through his assistant via email, but has not yet received any reply. When TIS Monitor called the school, the operator refused to connect the call.
Bangkok Prep head of school Mr Duncan Stonehouse was unavailable as he was on private leave when TIS Monitor contacted his office. A follow-up request to have a deputy head of school or school director give a comment in his place has not yet been responded to at the time of the publishing of this article.
Mr Jon Standen is head master at Harrow International School. Via his secretary he told TIS Monitor that he was ”unable to do the interview due to a very tight schedule”.
Mr Paul Schoffield is head of school at St Andrews Sukhumvit 71, part of Nord Anglia Education, and has been contacted via his direct email, but has not returned a request for a comment. A few days later, the school’s director of marketing in an email writes: ”We are in constant communication with our teams and will continue to address these questions by engaging with our parent community directly.”
TIS Monitor has been in touch with the admissions offices at these four schools, and none of them are, at the time of writing, offering any discounts or tuition fee refunds in relation to having switched to off-campus, online teaching.
Dr Anders Engvall is head of analysis at TIS Monitor, and he is not impressed with the officials at these well-known international schools.
”These four schools are among the largest for-profit International schools in the country, and all of them have between 1000 and 2000 students. They have financial turnovers in the billions, and employ hundreds of staff. You would expect them to be able to comment on matters like this, that are important for a lot of parents. Their silence is quite disappointing,” he says.
TIS Monitor recently published an in-depth investigation into the profits made by international schools in Thailand, which showed that some of the large schools are highly profitable, with profit margins in relation to revenue reaching 20% and even 30% in some recent years. The average profit margin for international schools in greater Bangkok was 7% for 2019.
Listed schools more transparent
Another large international school is SISB, Singapore International School Bangkok. It runs schools on four different campuses in Thailand, with a total of more than 2600 students. SISB is one of few international schools that is also listed on the stock exchange of Thailand, SET. As such, it comes under strict rules on transparency, and is obliged to regularly release financial data which is published on SET’s website.
According to this data, it is clear that SISB is a profitable school. In 2019 the profit margin was close to 20% of revenue, or almost 221 million baht, and for 2020 it was still close to 15%, or almost 160 million baht. 2021 has started very well despite the ongoing pandemic, with first quarter profits hovering at around 24% of revenue, or more than 70 million baht.
When it comes to offering fee discounts during the ongoing Covid-closure however, staff at the admissions office at the Pracha Uthit campus informed TIS Monitor that this is not the case.
One parent with children enrolled at a different SISB campus confirmed this, but said he had been offered a 50% reduction on an upcoming summer camp.
TIS Monitor has contacted SISB via several different e-mail addresses, and also by phoning the corporate office to request an interview with the management and with CEO Mr Kelvin Koh, but there has been no reply.
The uncertain future caused by Covid-19
As Covid-19 is coming under control in Western Europe and the USA thanks to mass vaccination, schools there are returning to normal. Here in Thailand however vaccination has been slow, and the future is uncertain. Media reports claim that foreigners, many of whose children attend international schools, will not be vaccinated until September or even October of this year.
Unless the ongoing Covid-surge in Thailand is brought under control, there is a risk that international schools will not be able to open for the next academic year, which is due to start in August.
If international schools maintain their policy of not offering discounts, families that are based here, but who originally come from Europe or the USA might choose to return to their home countries. In some cases they would have access to free or highly subsidized education there, which could be a tempting alternative to staying in Thailand and paying full fees for their children to study online at international schools here.
Likewise, foreign families who had planned to move to Thailand in the coming months may postpone, as the international schools here might not be able to open as normal.
”Many will be reluctant to pay full fees for online schooling if they have the option of enrolling their children in schools operating normally in their home countries. If the schools here in Thailand do not offer discounts, there is a risks that families will choose to settle in other countries. At the same time, people need time to make decisions. That is why schools here need to start communicating their fee policies,” Dr Anders Engvall warned us, before continuing:
”The overall impression is that many international schools in Thailand are trying to get through this crisis while maintaining their revenues and profits, and hoping that parents will accept this. It’s a daring act.”
Thai laws hampering open discussion
The debate about parents rights, tuition fees and school profits at international schools in Thailand is hampered by fear of Thailand’s strict anti-defamation laws and the computer crimes act, whereby public criticism or the posting of negative remarks on the internet can be regarded as a criminal offense.
Michael Töpffer is the editor-in-chief at TIS Monitor.
”It is very clear that parents are afraid of speaking up against the schools where their children are enrolled. They would rather stay quiet and continue paying fees that they regards as unfair and unreasonable, because they are afraid that raising their voice publicly could result in the school slapping them with a defamation lawsuit,” he says.
It also plays into the hands of the schools that parents have to pay enrollment fees, sometimes reaching hundreds of thousands of baht, to join a school. Withdrawing a child from a school one is unhappy with means being financially punished, as a second enrollment fee would still need to be paid at a new school. Parents may also be reluctant to change schools for a child who has settled in well with friends and teachers, further shrinking the room for parents to manoeuver.
As a result of this, international schools in Thailand are able to keep on demanding that parents pay full fees for what some regard as inferior service. The schools are aware that few parents are willing to publicly protest, to challenge their school, or even to move their children to a new school.
Criticism in closed online forums
Instead, some of the criticism is moving underground, to closed chatrooms on social media platforms such as Line, WhatsApp and Facebook.
In one such group seen by TIS Monitor, for parents with children enrolled in a well know international school in Bangkok, members aired their grievances in posts written during last year’s Covid-closure.
One parent, after having raised an issue with the school, shared the frustration of being told by a school official to simply change school if they were not willing to accept the situation, despite this meaning the loss of enrollment fees.
Another parent told how their child was simply cut off from online classes when as an act of protest the parent refused to pay the fees unilaterally imposed by the school for online classes.
A third parent wrote that their family would change schools if it wasn’t for the children’s love of that school.
TIS Monitor could not independently verify these claims.
”The Covid-situation is very stressful for the families. Parents have their hands tied behind their backs in relation to some of these schools, which allows the schools to keep on generating profits for their owners. While these schools are great in terms of offering an education, the fee structure some of them use is not in the interest of the parents as the schools receive large upfront payments for services delivered later. And this service can apparently suddenly be changed,” Dr Anders Engvall says.
Update May 27, 2021: A few international schools in Thailand are offering discounts or refunds related to the Covid-closure. HeadStart International School in Phuket and Dragon International School in Nonthaburi are among them.