Fee hike at top school puts spotlight on cost predictability – and consumer protection

On its website, the international school Bangkok Prep has announced a significant increase in its fees for the coming school year and also a redesigned fee structure. The move could reignite a discussion about consumer protection.

It is that time of the year when many of Thailand’s international schools announce their fees for the coming academic school year starting around August 2023.

Parents with children enrolled at Bangkok Prep could expect a major fee hike, for some year levels closer to 80,000 baht or more than 13 percent. But knowing the exact figures is difficult because the school has also made changes to its fee structure in what could be seen as an attempt to disguise the increase.

At the heart of the issue is consumer protection within the international school sector in Thailand – and parents’ rights to have a reasonable idea of what fee levels will be like in one, two, or three years at a school to which they have paid enrollment fees sometimes reaching many hundreds of thousands of baht.

International schools in Thailand typically present any new and updated tuition fee structure on their websites, replacing and removing the previous one. While this could seem like a normal and reasonable thing to do, it also makes it difficult for parents enrolling a child in a school to get an insight into the fee-raising culture at the school.

TIS Monitor has for many years collected fee structures from international schools to learn more about what is driving the international school market and how fees are set. When analyzing these fee structures and seeing how they change from one year to the next, certain patterns start to emerge. Seemingly small and cosmetic changes to the fee structure can have a huge impact on the total cost for a parent paying the fees.

Different ways of presenting fees
In Thailand, some international schools have a very simple fee structure, where all costs are included in the main tuition fee. The exceptions are those fees that obviously should be optional and paid only by families who use them, like fees for school bus transportation or after-school activities.

Other schools break down the fees and separate items, like tuition, lunch, trips, computer, etc. By shuffling around these items from one year to the next, making them optional or compulsory, included in other fees or listed separately, schools can weaken parents’ understanding of what they are paying for – and hide an increase in the total cost of studying there.

During the COVID-19 closure, this method was used by an international school, also large and very well-known but different to the one featured in this article, to circumvent a temporary freeze on fee hikes set by the regulatory authority. A major redesign of the fee structure was in fact an increase in total cost for a similar service. The move was revealed by TIS Monitor.

Bangkok Prep is one of Thailand’s largest and most well-known international schools, with a very strong reputation for excellent education. When collecting and analyzing its fee structure for 2023-24, which was recently published on the school’s website, TIS Monitor noticed a significant increase in fees as well as structural changes to what parents pay for, compared to the previous fee structure which by then TIS Monitor could no longer find on the website.

For instance, meals at Bangkok Prep used to be optional, and the cost was presented separately. In recent years, the cost of meals annually was 31,000 baht for students above year 1. For the next academic year, meals will be compulsory up to year 11 – but also included in the tuition fee.

But there are more changes. In a letter sent to parents and seen by TIS Monitor, a certain type of school trip will from now on be included in the tuition fee, and there are also other, smaller changes being made as to what parents pay for. However, as no figures are mentioned in the letter, it is difficult to know the economic benefit of these changes for the parents.

Difficult to compare fees
As the tuition fee for the next academic year will include more items, it is impossible to make a fully fair comparison to see how the cost has changed. In this analysis, TIS Monitor has chosen to focus on only known, published, and compulsory fees. The analysis is also limited to year 1 up to graduation, thus excluding preschool, and only the fees occurring after having enrolled a child.

Fee data collected from Bangkok Prep’s website by TIS Monitor over a period of three years.

The first column shows the upcoming academic year 2023-24. The next column is for the current year 2022-23 fees, where meals are optional and have been opted out. The two following columns show the difference in absolute numbers and as a percentage. 

The analysis shows that for most of the year levels, the difference is more than 64,000 baht, reaching 77,000 baht, or around 12 to 13 percent.

For parents who already paid for the meals during 2022-23, the gap of course shrinks by 31,000 baht, given that the same standard of food is offered, and it shrinks even further when the other newly included items are taken into account.

The last column lists the fees for the academic year 2021-22, showing that fees increased very little, only about 6000 baht per year level or less than one percent, compared to the following year 2022-23.

”Seen over three years, the total fee increase at Bangkok Prep is in line with the industry, and not in any way unusual. However, that doesn’t help any family who joined the school last year and enrolled a child in year 9 and chose to not pay for meals. That parent had probably expected an increase of around 40,000 baht as the child moved up one year but will now have to pay 117,000 baht more,” says Michael Töpffer, editor at TIS Monitor.

”That is quite a significant increase and it could be questioned if any parent would have expected such a change,” he says.

The issue boils down to basic consumer protection – or rather a lack thereof.

”A fundamental principle in this industry must be that a redesign of the fee structure should apply only to new families, not to those who have already enrolled, especially when new and compulsory fees are introduced,” Michael Töpffer says.

School refuses to comment
TIS Monitor has repeatedly contacted Bangkok Prep and asked for an interview about the new fee structure, preferably with the head of school, Mr Duncan Stonehouse, or the chairman of the executive board, Dr Anumongkol Sirivedhin.

Among the questions we would like to ask are:

° How does Bangkok Prep assure transparency in the setting of fees?

° How does Bangkok Prep address the issue of fee predictability?

° How much will the fees increase 2024-25?

° Would Bangkok Prep refund the lunch fees for those who do not prefer to eat the school lunch for religious, cultural, or other reasons and who chose your school partly because meals were optional?

° Would you consider returning the enrollment fees to any families who are now pushed out of the school?

Bangkok Prep did not return our requests for an interview.

Some schools give indication on fees
Very few international schools in Thailand among the roughly 150 covered by TIS Monitor offer any type of indication to parents on how much the fees will change, but some do. Records held by TIS Monitor show that the following schools, all located in Bangkok, are among them.

Some schools have also – at least previously – offered fixed fees for a number of years. Among them are California Prep International School in Saraburi province (2020-2024), Oak Meadow International School in Phuket (fees frozen for three years from 2020), and HeadStart International School in Phuket (2017-2022).

There are also a number of schools that seem to not raise fees very often but do not indicate this on their published fee structures. Among them are JW Montessori international school, with campuses in Bangkok and Saraburi, and Kevalee International School in Bangkok. These schools still charge according to their 2019-20 fee structures.

For Bangkok Prep, TIS Monitor has been unable to find any kind of indicator on how fees will change. Instead, the school clearly announces that fees are subject to change without prior notice. 

”This shows when choosing an international school in Thailand, parents need to look at more than campus facilities, location, and curriculum. If they don’t read the fine print in the fee structure, they could be in for an unwelcome surprise in a few years’ time,” Michael Töpffer says.

Low level of consumer protection
The regulation surrounding the international school sector has been liberalized in recent years. A common misconception is that regulatory authorities have a say in the setting of fees. While any adjustment needs to be vetted by OPEC, the section within the Ministry of Education overseeing international schools, it doesn’t include the actual level of fees nor changes to the tuition fee structure, only for instance not charging parents twice for the same item.

There are a number of consumer rights bodies and organizations in Thailand. TIS Monitor has previously been in contact with some of them to inquire about consumer rights within the international school sector. However, no one showed any interest in dealing with this issue. One staff member even quipped that this is ”a rich man’s problem.” They pass the buck over to OPEC.

But here too, parents looking for help should not pin their hopes too high.

While OPEC has the power to intervene if school fees could lead to unreasonably high profits, an interview with senior officials at OPEC by TIS Monitor late last year revealed that the regulator often chooses not to intervene and instead relies on ”market mechanisms.” This means parents unhappy with fee hikes simply leave the school and enroll their children somewhere else, even though that would certainly mean having to pay a new enrollment fee.

”If a school suddenly raises its fees by 75,000 baht, but withdrawing and enrolling a child in a similar school costs 100,000 baht, it is likely that a family would choose to stay. There is not much protection available when school owners raise fees much more than a parent had anticipated when enrolling a child. This is currently the nature of the international school sector in Thailand,” concludes Michael Töpffer.

Editor note: Have the fees at your international school changed in an unexpected way? Please contact the editor at michael@tismonitor.com 



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