As we reach the end of 2009, a lot of things have been happening in the EFL industry in Thailand. EFL companies are either falling like dominoes or radically altering their business models.
"If you go down into the woods today...you're in for a big surprise." Ok, maybe not "the woods". Perhaps that should be changed to something more urban as in "the city of Bangkok" because if you do chance to take such a stroll, you'll see that there have been some very surprising things happening of late, particularly in the world of EFL. You'll find for example that there have been so many companies slashing their advertising budgets, altering their business models, changing business premises, taking on new partners, or folding altogether. Given this pattern, it would seem that many EFL related companies in Thailand are all falling like proverbial dominoes!!
The year started well enough in January with the usual Thailand TESOL conference, so the year began with a relatively normal beginning. It should be said that this coming year, Thailand TESOL is 30 years old in 2010. To celebrate, the organizers will be holding the 30th International Conference from January 29-30, 2010. They have decided that the theme of this conference is "ELT in the Next Decade: Sharing, Caring, and Daring". Do please give them your support.
Domino Number One
As the year progressed, we had a scandal or two though which began with the debacle that was English+ and the subsequent lawsuit that became fodder for journalists at the Bangkok Post and The Nation. It seems Mr. Manoch, the entrepreneurial owner, was unable to control his staff who regularly turned up for classes drunk or in a pretty sorry state ("three sheets to the wind" if I may use a sailing metaphor!) and many of his franchisees, who paid a considerable amount of money to use the brand name, and his teachers, have now filed a lawsuit. Watch this space as they say.
Another stalwart of the Thai EFL business, that has had a torrid time since the Credit Crunch and the global recession, is Elite which has changed offices from the Silom Road base (above the Korean Air shop) it has occupied for longer than anyone can remember. If this were America, we would say that the owners are "downsizing", but let's be honest, nobody gives up long established and apparently successful business premises, and continues trading, unless something is radically wrong, right? Or is it a case that in this recessionary period they are in fact "upsizing" like those offers you get at MacDonald's for a bigger Coke? Um, not sure. I'll let you be the judge. When I emailed the powers-that-be, I was directed to Vannop Tanrudee, and I was told that all was well and that they had just taken on some new full time teachers. "We just opened [sic] new school branch at Sathorn road mid of this year, and just recently recruited new full-time teachers for our new young learner programmes. Absolutely no truth from [sic] your rumours." So there you have it - straight from a particular animal's mouth. (I have refrained from using the full idiom in the possibility that I may later be sued for defamation...)
The Rumour Mill
But perhaps the biggest of the dominoes, which may not have actually fallen, but has radically altered the way the company does business in The Land of Smiles, is EF (Thailand). I spoke to Jean Scurti, the Senior Operations Manager, who assured me that yes, there were some changes in their business.
"EF Thailand, the division which is run by EF Education has absolutely no intention of closing. We have business partners in Thailand, franchise school [sic] in Bangkok, which are closing but we are not closing EF in Thailand. In terms of advertising, I do not oversee marketing, and it is not in my realm to comment on rumors about advertising spending." For me, this is a strange comment to make from someone who signs off as the "Senior Operations Manager for Thailand" but who doesn't seem to know anything about the marketing or advertising budget. The words "pass" and "buck" spring to mind!
When pressed for further information she responded with the following, "This year we have reviewed a number of our business partnerships in Thailand and taken the decision to discontinue some of them. Our head office remains in Bangkok, providing educational services to young people, students, adults and members of the business community." Again, watch this space as they say.
The Thai Culture course
The mandatory Thai Culture course has always been in the news since it started in 2006, but there have been a lot of people this year voicing their concerns albeit behind the safety of an avatar on ajarn.forum.net and elsewhere. In 2008, there was also a petition that was posted by one well-known teachers' agency (who shall remain anonymous), the Thai owners of whom have been quite vocal about what they perceive as treating farangs in a despicable way. It seems to me that they are unhappy only because they themselves are getting less and less of an opportunity to exploit the farang teachers who get paid peanuts and who have to often travel upcountry in order to serve their paymasters in Bangkok.
I had to laugh though when I read this for it neatly sums up just how far a Thai school owner will go in order to be critical of their superiors at The Teachers' Council of Thailand, the ministry that oversees the test which determines whether a teacher will be awarded a teaching license or not.
"WE feel that this is another way of extorting money from foreigners who wish to teach in Thailand and highly unnecessary in time and cost. WE urgently request that you send a written objection to this email address to be taken personally to the Ministry of Education to protest this course. WE ALL NEED YOUR SUPPORT!!!" Three more words spring to mind - "Pot" "kettle" and "black".
Like any petition that, on rare occasions, gets started in the Land of Smiles, it came to nothing as one would expect given the price for making criticism public - blacklisting, failure to have a visa or work permit renewed, or even worse, deportation. Like the German officer used to say, during interrogation in the old movies, "Resistance is futile!" Nuff said. If the rumours are to be believed, the Thai Culture course will soon be scrapped anyway, or allowed to fade quietly away as if it never existed, which is the uniquely Thai way of discontinuing deeply unpopular practices thus saving a degree of face.
One wonders what else is in store for the world of EFL in Thailand this coming year? Whatever it is, I hope it's good! Have a great 2010!
Tom Tuohy is a teacher and writer. His blog is http://ramblingsofanurbancrazyman.blogspot.com Some of the material in this article will be republished in two articles for the EL Gazette in their February and March 2010 editions.