(To skip straight to more recent history, see an interview with the new management/ ownership of Unitefl here. )
I haven’t worked in Thailand since I was a humble Shane teacher there in 96/97 and didn’t really take much of an interest in the place once I left, but this story is a good candidate for TEFL soap opera of all time and I did get dragged into it rather bizarrely. Read on…
What became the Unitefl course was set up at the Language Institute of Chang Mai University (LICMU) about seven years ago by the university and Matt Kay, an Australian whose background was, according to his own comment on a forum:
“…at 17 years old I could neither read nor write (well, a little bit, but very very badly – I’d left school at 14) at 19 I auditioned and was accepted to … National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney.. – got thrown out after two years, but managed to pick up reading and writing skills. Bummed around for years trying to pick up acting work – married a famous Oz actress – Lenore Smith (was in the Flying Doctors for seven years)…I wandered into a small regional uni…- did a couple of years of undergrad there and did a lot better than I thought I would – moved up to the University of Queensland to study philosophy and religion – finished my BA and did an honors year – did a honors dissertation on Eihei Dogen – Japanese founder of Soto Zen – got a Ph.D scholarship that was half paid by UQ and by …university of hawaii…- I came to Thailand in 2003 with a few months of writing of my thesis to do… I taught English in Chiang Mai at that time (180 baht an hour at CEC)… I went home in 2004 to defend my thesis and because I missed Thailand so much came back to teach English as a “Dr.” (apart from the fact that I am pretty much a boofhead and no one can believe I have a doctorate!).”
Matt’s story of how he went to set up the course was:
“I began work at LICMU as a English teacher in 2004. The former director and myself were in fact the very first two employees working out of a small office in the humanities building at CMU. Not long after we were joined by some Thai staff and around 7 or 8 English teachers.
In 2005, it was proposed that a building for the Language Institute, CMU, be built. There were however very little funds to do it. I suggested some educational programs for foreigners to the former Language Institute director who then suggested them to the vice president of CMU. These programs were approved by the vice president of CMU; however, there was little to no money to initiate them. I put a proposal to the vice president of CMU…that I would work for no wage in exchange for a profit share of the programs if the did made money in the future.
I signed a contract of employment with the CMU president’s office…The contract stipulated that I would receive no salary or wage, but that I would enter into a profit share with CMU; however, it there was any money owing at the end of the month, I was also liable for that loss (a couple of months, I had to put in 10000 or as much as 30000 TBH)….
I worked for almost 18 months before any of the programs showed a profit, and supported myself by working as an English teacher at night and a part-time philosophy lecturer during the day.
The programs did begin to make a profit and quite a good profit. Enough that the original plan of the Language Institute, CMU, only taking the ground floor of the building was changed…to taking over the entire building.
Everything was going very well for a very long time. The way it worked was that all monies for the programs were paid to LICMU and, after costs, I received my share. For many years that amounted to about 40000 TBH per month…LICMU was receiving around 250000 to 300000 TBH per month.”
There were online doubts about the course (e.g. the trainers’ qualifications) and Matt (e.g. his temper and qualifications) and the well-publicised tie in with TEFL International did not last long (according to TEFL International founder and CEO Bruce Veldhuisen on this blog because CMU TEFL refused to post their student feedback online), but the course did well enough that they were able to raise the prices to virtually the same as a CELTA course in Thailand and go on to set up other courses, most notably a one-year Thai language course. It was via that one-year Thai language programme that problems in the whole enterprise became clear when on 1 September 2010 someone started a thread on Thaivisa.com with the message:
“I am a foreign student studying Thai language at the Language Institute of Chiang Mai University, starting with a 3-months non-immigrant visa. My class attendance has been 100% perfect. They said they will provide the necessary support documents for me to bring to the local immigration office to renew my visa when the 3 months are up. It was up last week actually but they are unable to provide any documents because their director of the Language Institute, on order from the university president, is refusing to sign any visa related documents. This has been going on for almost a month.
When I confronted the director on what we are supposed to do when our visas expire and we are unable to get a renewal, he said we should just let our visas expire. When I asked him about the potentially serious consequences of over staying with an expired visa, he recommended me “not to do anything dangerous”, then it should be “OK”. There are many other students who are affected by this irresponsible, unprofessional behavior of the Language Institute at CMU. We paid our tuition (for the entire year) in full, but when it comes to getting the necessary visa, they screw us up through and through….”
and three other posters quickly confirmed those problems.
In then became clear that all courses for several hundred foreigners, including the TEFL course, were being summarily shut down/ kicked out by the university, with cancelled visas (giving some people just days to find another way of getting a visa or get out of the country) and no refunds by Chiang Mai University.
(Mainly unlikely and mutually contradictory) rumours for the reason included crime by students on the Thai language programme, students not attending lessons, fraud, being a visa mill, a new (Thai) manager just wanting to put their own stamp on the organisation, the LICMU growing too big for its boots, doubts by CMU about how Matt Kay was using their name, the university wanting to claim more of the pie than its 60/40 split of fees with Matt Kay would allow, bribery, not paying the right bribes, “the directors daughter visited the Uni and commented to daddy that it didnt look good that the Uni was full of falang”, general hatred of foreigners, CMU losing the right to help their students get one year visas, and even the university being completely unaware of what IUS (who actually ran the programmes) was up to in LICMU.
Matt’s account of the collapse was:
“In July 2010, the former director was due for retirement. I was in Australia at that time. She rang me in Australia and told me that she had just been offered by the new vice president the job of running all the programs that I had set up. Out of loyalty to me and the years of hard work that she knew I had put in, she declined.
When I returned from Australia, I tried VERY hard to meet with the new LICMU director. I kept hearing from others that the new LICMU director and the new deputy director had said there would be major changes to LICMU and to the programs that I was running. I didn’t know for sure what was happening – no one would talk to me. Even NOW, I have never had one conversation with the new vice president nor the deputy director – and have only had two very brief conversations with the new director of LICMU.
My agreement with the former director and the former vice president was that anytime that they wanted me to cease running these programs, I would immediately. If anyone had said to me that they wanted the programs to stop, I would have done so without hesitation. If anyone had asked me to cease the programs, I would have also requested that we begin a very well-thought out procedure for doing so. None of this was EVER discussed with me.
The first that we knew there was a problem was around the first week of August when LICMU refused to sign visas for students. Remember – LICMU had stopped signing visas BUT LICMU was still receiving the money for those students! We were told at first that it was Thai immigration that was stopping the visas and that as soon as they were satisfied that we were not selling visas, they would begin to sign them again.
However, when Thai immigration sent a team of six to go through our records and gave us the “all-clear,” we were expecting that the signing of visas would begin again. Again and again and again, we were told by the new director of LICMU the signing of visas would begin tomorrow – tomorrow – tomorrow.
Finally, I cornered the new LICMU director and told him that if we did not have the student’s visas signed by next Wednesday that I could no longer run ILLEGAL programs, and that LICMU would have to take over the running of all the programs. When that Wednesday arrived, I had a truck ready and moving-men, my staff packed everything and we began to leave LICMU. We put signs on our offices that we could no longer run the programs and to go to the director’s office.
After some students had gone to his office, the director of LICMU ran up to me as we were loading our gear onto trucks and asked to have a meeting with me (THIS was the first time that I had talked to him at any length!!). I had a meeting with him (witnessed by about 2-3 people) in which he told me that there were too many foreigners at LICMU and that he wished to only have Thai students there -”Thai students are much less trouble,” he said. So he said that they would not be signing any visa. I said again that I could not continue the programs if students were not able to have visas. The director said that he could not give visas but that if I refunded all the money to the affected students that he would let us run all the programs till the end of December 2010. (again, this was all witnessed by others)I agreed because I thought that by running the other programs, I could use that money to refund any student who had not got a visa. And, by December I might be able to find another home for the programs. This is also when I began to form IUS into a company with the view that we could do our own visas at a future date. Until this point, I was still under my original contract of employment with LICMU.
Now this is where it gets REALLY weird ….
I saw the new director walking past a few days after our meeting. He mentioned that we would be leaving at the end of the month (September – this was the beginning of September). I said: “No, December.” He then laughed and said “Oh, no, I told the president, September, I got them mixed up! You’ll have to go at the end of September.” In spite of my protests, he told me that he had told the president at it was too late. The director then said something about farangs that does not bear repeating here (and could also get me into a lot of trouble under Thai law – even if he did in fact say it!!).
Now I went back to my staff in crisis mode. We had tens of students thinking that they were getting either their visas or a refund (to be paid with the programs that were now suddenly not running). We approached another university who one day said they were very happy to have us and sponsor our visas – the very next day changed their minds. I began to try everything to get students their visas because I now did not have the means to make the money to give them their refunds.
Finally, when everything failed, I went to the director and with all the accounts and said that if LICMU were not going to give students their visa then WE (myself and LICMU) would have to refund their money. I thought that it was fair that LICMU refund their share (60%) and I refund my share (40%). The director flatly said that LICMU would not be refunding ANY money to ANY student.
In this period, when LICMU was refusing to sign visas (although remember I did not know for sure that they were not signing visas until I had my first meeting with the director after I threatened to quit and hand over the programs to LICMU), which began early August, I currently have receipts for approximately 700000 TBH that I gave out in refunds, overstays, and travel expenses. I calculate that I still have about 500000 to pay until I reach my 40% of all students affected.
However, recently I said that I would pay ALL refunds – about 3 million in total. The main reason I am doing this is because I want to stay in Thailand. I have a Thai wife and a 4 year old daughter and I want to stay here and work here. I could not do that and just leave everyone high and dry. I also believe with all my heart that if I try and do the right thing then the money will come. I have sold my motorcycles and have applied for a personal loan in Australia. The money from these should come most of the way to paying not only my share of the refunds, but also LICMU’s share.”
Resolutions with CMU and a move to Far East University announced by Matt Kay didn’t happen, and instead in November 2010 a course was run under the new name Unitefl in a renta-office space in Chang Mai by a company owned by Fon Kay (Matt’s Thai wife), mainly with trainees who had paid for the CMU course.
Despite some doubts and claims by CMU (e.g. over how he continued to the CMU name and even email addresses and websites after they had broken ties with him), Matt Kay generally got a lot of online respect for how he dealt with the fallout of the LICMU debacle, e.g. for sticking up for the people who lost their courses and visas, for offering refunds and offering Unitefl courses to others (despite not having received CMU’s portion of their fees), and for trying to find other solutions such as the FEU one.
The Unitefl course seemed to do fairly well after that, but then Matt decided to drag me into it with a reply to a mention of his name in comment on a post about University Language Institutes more generally:
“You should be very careful of the comments that you make on this site Mr. Alex Case. You might reaquaint yourself with Thai CRIMINAL libel laws; if you would rather not, I will have my lawyer do it for you. Firstly, I have absolutely nothing to do with UniTEFL. This was set up by the former CMU TEFL staff when Chiang Mai University suddenly stopped all ‘foreign’ programs at the Language Institute, CMU, as a way of honoring the money paid by those students and which was not going to be paid back to them by by CMU. It had nothing to do with so-called “dubious business practices” – rather it had to do with something of which I cannot mention in a public forum, but which the 25 staff who lost their jobs are well-aware. It was despicable reason and something that would have you arrested in any other country. I ran those programs at LICMU for over 7 years, very successfully, and without incident. The quality of all the programs was often commented upon by students. If in the future, you decide you would like to spread malicious gossip on your website, you might have the decency to at least talk to the target of that gossip. To not do so makes you far worse than the person’s reputation you hope to imugn for your own – I can only guess – commercial reasons. Do the TEFL industry a favour and piss off, I can assure you it doesn’t need garbage like you.
I, unlike you, can be contacted at anytime by anyone. Let’s meet so we can “discuss” in the good old Aussie way – Matt Kay”
“p.s. have the balls – and, if you can drag it up from some hidden depths, the decency to publish my reply – Matt Kay”
To which I replied
“I always think it makes a great impression to threaten someone twice and insult them many times in your first two comments on their blog, especially when you should actually be addressing your comments to another person (incapable of reading names on comments?) Having not been in Thailand since 1997 and therefore not particularly interested in your story, I have repeatedly turned down offers of information and guest blog posts on you and your organisations, but I will obviously take a lot more interest from now on. But I’m sure anyone thinking of doing business with you can already come to their own conclusions from the tone you choose to use in a public space.
Really reminds me of how the whole Paul Lowe thing started…”
This was followed in incredibly quick succession by Matt’s comment:
“You have the hide to talk about “threatening someone twice and insulting them” – you have got to be joking. You allow a post up that threatens my reputation – you who have not been to Thailand since 1997 – would you like to enlighten everyone EXACTLY as to why you haven’t been to Thailand in all that time?”
“Your name is on the site, pal! So take the fucking post down, you-piece-of-shit Matt Kay”
“you fucked with the wrong bunny, cunt! let’s see how much rep can stand up to?”.
Replies to those emails got pinged back and those were the last two things I heard from Matt Kay. However, as my reply said that prompted me to have a look at Unitefl’s website, where I was surprised to find that their qualification was 50 dollars more than a Cambridge CELTA at ECC and only 100 dollars cheaper than a Cambridge CELTA at International House. The site was also full of crap:
– Claims to be recognized/ approved by IATEFL and TESOL (those two organizations do not recognise or approve any TEFL courses and you don’t even need to prove that you are connected to TEFL to become a member)
– Logo of the Thailand Ministry of Education, someone they couldn’t possibly have already got approved by in the time since they were kicked out by CMU
– A statement that TAFE colleges in Australia would be offering UniTEFL courses from April of the following, something that never happened but was still on the website at least 18 months later
– Lots of statements which were obviously about the old CMU TEFL course without any explanation of that fact, including using testimonials that were all about the CMU course without even stating that this is what they have done.
A commenter later published emails from Unitefl claiming UniTEFL was “easily the best TEFL program offered in Thailand”, “South East Asia’s most highly-regarded TEFL certificate” and even more bizarrely stating that “All you really need is an i-to-i TEFL qualification and your plane tickets” (presumably because they’d been cutting and pasting straight off the i-to-i site!) Other comments revealed that Matt’s claim to have no connection to Unitefl (presumably made to avoid complaints from CMU and old CMU trainees) was a straightforward lie.
No one admitting to be from Unitefl ever replied, despite me emailing them at least twice asking them to, although we did get rather bizarre comments from someone claiming to be a journalist and someone who was apparently visiting CMU but just decided to pop into the Unitefl course rather than the CMU one (which was up and running again – see below). Unitefl must have been reading, though, because they did quickly take away the “recognised/ approved by” line above the IATEFL and TESOL logos. Unfortunately, they then added more crap such as claiming they (UniTEFL) were the main suppliers to some schools – pretty impressive for a three month old TEFL course!
On 15 November 2011 they (or presumably an agent) also indulged in a bit of spam with:
“Excellent post. I was checking continuously this blog and I’m impressed! Extremely useful information particularly the remaining part I deal with such info a lot. I was looking for this particular info for a very long time. Thanks and best of luck.” with a link to their website.
On 25 May 2012 we also got the comment from “Me”:
“sold the company – made a SHIT LOAD of dough – so go fuck yourself!!! LOL”, which I still find it difficult to believe was really from Matt Kay but was at least partly accurate as I’d already been in touch with the new management.
On 18 May 2012, someone had emailed the person in charge of advertising at TEFL.net, including this:
“The company I’m working with, Unitefl, has recently come under new ownership and made considerable changes, but some rather derogatory and slanderous comments remain on a blog by Alex Case which are now not really applicable. They’re working hard to distance themselves from the previous bad owners and they hired me to resolve this. They really are quite eager to please and we hope to discuss the matter with your site management rather than having to take legal action”
and on my suggestion we were put in touch directly.
This carrot and stick trick is usually the worst possible sign (and a lot of rest of that email turned out not to be quite true) so I had my suspicions “new” meant “same same”, but the conversation quickly became very productive and I was genuinely very happy to reach an agreement on how I could turn “Don’t study with Unitefl Thailand” into a title and post that more reflected the new site and situation, along with an interview of the new management/ ownership.
The interview contained claims that Matt had sold up completely and left the country, but also the rather worrying information that the rest of the company (which seemingly had gone along with what he did up to then) was basically the same. Although steps are being taken in that direction, the staff also seemed to be under-qualified even by TEFL International standards. Generally, though, no one wrote anything in the comments section to convince me that “Don’t study with Unitefl Thailand” was a fair summary of the situation at that point and as agreed I changed it to the much more neutral “A review of unitefl.com”.
Unfortunately, the new management responded to me keeping up my end of the bargain completely on time with stronger threats of legal action and repeating earlier accusations (without any attempt at evidence) that I post under different names on my own blog, at which point I changed the title all the way back again. Still not sure where that little spat came from, seeing as they have never asked me to change anything written at that time and didn’t even bother posting a reply, but eventually things settled down and I came up with a solution which I thought could satisfy both of us – and this blog post is it.
To summarise my feelings at this point, I still don’t understand why anyone would take anything other than a Cambridge CELTA (especially in Thailand where the CELTA isn’t exactly pricy), but there are far worse courses out there than Unitefl and they do seem to have a genuine desire to be more professional and keep improving.
One of those much worse courses is, to bring us full circle, CMU TEFL. Chiang Mai University reinstated the Thai language courses (though still refusing to sponsor visas) and then later rather cheekily set up their own TEFL course in early 2011 – one which should be avoided for not just moral reasons – but refused to allow people who had paid for the old CMU TEFL course onto it. I can think of a four letter word beginning with C that Matt Kay used that applies…