In dispute over school fees, parents face a lonely struggle

Photo: Scott Graham at UnSplash

When the coronavirus broke out in Thailand in mid-March last year, the international schools here all closed down and transitioned to online teaching. This however raised a serious question for parents: With students no longer receiving the same type of education or access to school facilities they had been promised when they first enrolled, how would this be reflected in the school fees families had to pay? Or to put it straight: How much discount would they get?
When learning, some parents would be disappointed.
But doing something about it would turn out being not so easy.

A few weeks into the period of online teaching last year, frustration was growing in various chat groups for parents with children enrolled in international schools in Thailand. Some parents felt that the discounts offered weren’t enough.

Some schools offered a refund on fees already paid, or various types of discounts on upcoming school fees, typically 10 percent for older children and more for younger ones. Other schools meanwhile reportedly chose to offer nothing at all.

The situation was of course completely new for both parties. The pandemic wasn’t the schools’ fault, but neither was it the parents’. What is however clear is that when parents chose to enroll their children in a particular school, they had known what the fees would be, and also what services, education, and access to premises their children would to receive for those fees.

In the event of a sudden change in situation, like the pandemic, to what extent do international schools have the right to decide their own prices, even though they are providing a service completely different to the one that families expect – and initially agreed to?

To a very large extent, it would turn out.

Many families filed complaints
OPEC, the department within the Ministry of Education that regulates international schools in Thailand, says that the schools’ actions during the closure led to many complaints from parents – but no major intervention on OPEC’s part.

Rattiya Thani, director of the Special Policy School Division at OPEC, says that complaints were concerning other matters as well as fees.
”Some parents complained about the schools having closed at all, and about the switch to online teaching. When the schools later reopened in June other parents were dissatisfied, and would have preferred education to continue online,” she says.

International schools in Thailand are regulated by the Private School Act. The current one was ratified in 2007 and updated in 2011, when many sections were annulled.

The act is however vague when it comes to giving rules or guidelines that apply to setting school fees. Section 32 states that schools may set any fees they wish, taking into account profit and the schools’ costs. School fees are ultimately determined by the school’s executive committee.

OPEC pushed the matter back to the school
When OPEC began receiving complaints from dissatisfied parents about schools’ fees for online tuition during the shutdown, OPEC simply forwarded these complaints to the respective schools.

”If an issue is not regulated under the Private School Act, then there is nothing we can do. As for the question of fees during school closures, we turned to the schools to hear their explanations. In general, they replied that during the closure they largely continued to have the same running costs and pay the same salaries as before, and as a result of this could not reduce school fees further. This we accepted, and therefore we forwarded the complaints to each school to deal with,” says Rattiya Thani.

According to OPEC, for the first shutdown in March last year, fees that are more directly linked to children’s attendance, such as the costs of school meals and transport, have generally been repaid to parents, or given as credit for upcoming semesters.

For the second shutdown, in January, it has been reported that OPEC has ordered the schools to repay some fees, including charges for items which did not occur during the online learning period.

According to the Private School Act, families’ interests in the running of schools should be safeguarded by them being represented on the school’s executive committee. In reality however, this representation forms a clear minority, with other members being a teacher representative, the licensee, a ”qualified person” and the school management holding the majority.

More issues cause frustration
Parents’ complaints about school fees do not only stem from the shutdown. Even during more normal school years, schools take decisions that create frustration among parents – and lead to a feeling of powerlessness.

A Thai family who has been in contact with TIS Monitor told us how they were forced to remove their child from an international school in Bangkok’s Sukhumvit area, and enroll in a cheaper one in Sathorn area.
”They just kept raising the fees a lot more than we were expecting when we first enrolled our child, until eventually we couldn’t afford it any more. When we moved we lost our enrollment fee, which felt very unfair. We did not have the strength to fight them, so we just pulled out quietly and changed schools,” the mother of the family says.

Another family from America chose to move their two children from a school in central Bangkok to one on the outskirts of the city more than two years ago.

”At our old school, the fees were raised time and time again, far more than we were expecting, but the quality did not improve. At the same time a lot of new students were accepted into the school, so it became very crowded in the schoolyard. It was a different school to the one we had enrolled our children in years earlier. Our new school is actually slightly more expensive, but we feel it’s fairer and more transparent. We want predictability,” the parents say.

In Thailand, there are several organizations and authorities that have been set up to serve the interests of consumers. One of them is the Consumer Protection Board, an authority attached to the Prime Minister’s Office. According to their website, its purpose is ”to handle complaints from consumers, and to institute legal proceedings when an infringement of consumer rights is recognized.”

But when TIS Monitor contacted them, an employee who wished to remain anonymous replied:
”We sometimes receive complaints like this, but we normally pass them on to OPEC, as they are in charge of international schools. We are mainly responsible for helping consumers who do not receive fair prices when buying products.”

Lawyer: ”Read the contract”
Tony Boon is a lawyer at MVP International Law Office, located in the Sathorn area in Bangkok. He says that he has helped several families in legal disputes with international schools in Thailand, often regarding unexpected hikes in school fees.

”The main cause of conflict is the contract that the parents sign with the school when the children are enrolled. In general, the school fee is not stipulated in the contract, but is published separately on a website. When the fee is then raised more than the parents expect this inevitably leads to conflict,” he says.

The contract, the document the parents sign when enrolling the child, can in some cases be a simple admission form, where parents tick a box for Yes or No when offered a place.

Tony Boon makes the comparison between a school contract and an ordinary rental contract for an apartment. In a rental contract, the rent is always clearly stipulated and then agreed upon by both parties. Future rent increases may even be stipulated. This is generally not the case, he claims, when signing contracts with international schools in Thailand.

”For every case that I take, I have to look at the contract and see how it is written. In a contract, one party cannot be able to take advantage of the other, instead it must be fair for both parties. If the school fee is not agreed in the contract, I claim that the contract is invalid,” he says.

At the OPEC office, Rittya Thani says that to her knowledge many of the parents who have previously complained to them about school fees simply give up.

”It seems like most parents do not want to make a big deal off it, so in the end they back off,” she says.

But she does have one piece of advice for families hoping to avoid legal disputes with schools:
”Read the contract thoroughly before you sign it.”



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