I regularly turn down suggestions for TEFL dirt digging because I want to get back to the Past Perfect Continuous games that are my real forte. However, I don’t think I’d ever been offered as much unwanted info on anyone as I was on a certain person associated with the original Chang Mai University TEFL course and, after the still controversial shutting down of the course by CMU, its successor Unitefl. However, when that very person replied to a comment by someone else on the CMU mess with insults, a lie about his involvement with Unitefl, threats of legal action, threats of physical violence and eventually the c-word, I thought I’d give the UniTEFL website a look. My conclusion was Don’t Study with Unitefl Thailand, and everything I later learnt about that commenter, the b/s on their website and some spam I received from them reinforced that opinion.
However, on 18 May this year someone 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 so I had my suspicions “new” meant “same same”, but I must say since then all email communication has been highly professional and productive, and quite a few changes have been made to the website before and since. After discussing a list of complaints about the original post and its comments, we eventually agreed that the new manager/ owner who had emailed would answer questions on the company and based on those answers we would discuss again what to do with the original Do Not Study with Unitefl Thailand post. As I always do, the interview was done by email in two stages, with the second stage being follow-up questions after the initial answers. Please feel free to add other questions, suggestions about what I should do with the original post, or any other comments below.
And here is the interview:
Could you very briefly introduce yourself?
Sure, I’m one of the new owners of Unitefl, I’ve worked in the EFL world and have completed two TEFL courses, but my recent background is in media, communications and business management, so I’ve elected to deal with media and publicity for Unitefl.
Could you explain the rather roundabout way in which I learnt about your complaints about the original Unitefl post?
When Unitefl came under new management we reviewed all aspects of the business, including clearing up negative publicity and expanding our online marketing. Regarding your blog, we took legal advice since some of the content seems slanderous, and were advised by our lawyer to approach TEFL.net since they are the formal entity publishing the site. We had also identified them as a potentially good place to advertise. Since TEFL.net has no obvious contact for adminstrative issues we ended up contacting the ad sales executive, who referred us to you. Given the background and our subsequent changes we felt it was best to discuss the matter directly rather than take legal action.
Would you agree that some of the criticisms about the ownership, management, online presence etc were fair at the time they were written?
Some of it is valid, yes. I can’t entirely speak for the previous owner but after the fallout from the CMU TEFL debacle in 2010 he had a credibility problem and had to compromise the integrity of Unitefl’s claims. Unfortunately he lacked communication diplomacy which further exasperated things by galvanising criticism and starting an online slandering match. Some of the blog does become rather personal and vindictive though.
Does “personal and vindictive” mean the original blog post, my comments, or comments by others? If it is the comments, given the standard set by the previous owner of Unitefl in the comments section of another post (comments he strongly demanded I publish), what kinds of controls on commenters could I seriously have been expected to impose?
I think that is one the reader can judge for themselves, we’re not associated any longer with the previous owner, and prefer not to go down that route, blog comments can become a bit of a free for all, and a genuine critique like yours can sometimes be hijacked by trolls.
How did the change in ownership/ management come about?
In March 2012 the previous owner and his wife decided to get out of the TEFL industry, and more recently they left Thailand due to malicious litigation threats from Chiang Mai University (unrelated to Unitefl). The business has potential and is well established so the staff and some new investors took it over in view of improving the professionalism.
Did the present management/ ownership have no influence on Unitefl at that time? If they did, couldn’t someone have controlled the previous owner?
Nope, part of the problem stemmed from the previous owners unilateral style of management, fortunately that has been changed, it’s a common problem with small businesses, but that didn’t detract from the quality inside the classroom.
Can you explain what changes have been made to the ownership, management, online presence, course, staffing etc, and what other changes are planned?
Yes, this is where the significant changes have been made. Ownership is now formalised with several shareholders and a board of management that collectively makes decisions on how a professional TEFL school should be run. This is not a course, it’s a company. I have joined the board as an executive with more than 10 years’ proven track record in building small businesses in Asia. My objective is to set professional ethical standards. The other partners are existing TEFL administrators. We’ve also hired a new Director of Studies who is suitably qualified and experienced. The course was fundamentally sound and only needs minor adjustments, but we have overhauled our website and its claims.
Which things have remained the same, e.g. parts of the old Chang Mai University course?
The core staff, including trainers and administration, have been together several years to hone their experience, and this goes back to the CMU days. The curriculum itself was originally developed there, using input from TEFL International and others, and has been fine-tuned by our team over the years. We’ve kept the experience but improved on the mis-management from the previous owner that resulted in the 2010 University debacle.
Do any of the present staff have a longer connection to the company and/ or its old CMU precursor?
Yes, the people who competently built and ran this course for several years at CMU are part of our present team; they have been at the mercy of some poor executive decision making over the past two years.
What was your own involvement with Unitefl before the management/ ownership changes and how did you end up being one of the people in charge once it changed?
I’ve been acquainted with members of the team for some time, as a successful business person locally I was approached by them to help take it over from the previous owner and build the business.
Don’t you think the name “Unitefl” is rather misleading in its suggestion of university links? If so, are you thinking of changing it?
Chiang Mai has a Uniserve, Uniloft, Unilanguage, Unikids, it’s a fairly generic use of the Latin deriviative ‘one’, but yes it could suggest some association to the University out of which Unitefl was born. We don’t claim to be associated with a university, but there is certainly a target towards uni graduates who might be looking to get a TEFL qualification. It wouldn’t be a very good idea for a TEFL school to keep rebranding itself, certainly for alumni holding Unitefl certificates. We are proud of the teachers that Unitefl name has turned out so far.
Do you think the fact that the course was developed in the (very controversial) Language Institute Chiang Mai University really adds anything to it or its recognition? (Your site says twice that qualifications from local universities have little recognition).
We are transparent about our curriculum and background. Several years and lots of expert advice went into developing the curriculum and it is moderated by qualified auditors in the UK. This was the result largely of this TEFL entity/team we have inherited. The Language Institute and University gained its notoriety by throwing all its students out, that was unnecessary, I think. Chiang Mai University has since started from scratch in running a new TEFL course, but whether it’s an internationally credible course or just a certificate with ‘university’ on is a separate discussion. It’s not appropriate for me to get into that.
Your main accreditation is through TEFL International. What does the accreditation and moderation process consist of? How difficult is it to get accepted as a TI-accredited course? Did Unitefl have to make changes to the old CMU course to get accreditation? Have they suggested any other changes to your course?
This is a pertinent question that has received a lot of attention on your blog, and I must say, targeted TEFL International quite obviously. For us, being accredited to a widely recognised international organisation is important, for the same reason that schools belong to the CELTA network. Aside from ATI, TI is the only other option, and we value them for the network of partners, job placement programme and standards monitoring. It provides for a level of credibility, more than most of the independent TEFL courses out there. Our course was originally developed in conjunction with TI during the CMU days, so they were familiar with our operation, curriculum, and accepted Unitefl as a member. There’s not enough space here to go into the TI moderation but their course director, Dr. Brian Tomlinson, conducts monthly skype appraisals, these include reviews input, observation feedback, comments, lesson plans, student journals and student self-assessments.
Our course was developed in conjunction with input from TI, they have not suggested any other changes to our course layout. During our monthly moderation process with Dr. Tomlinson, he will make recommendations, suggestions, and advise for educational updates.
The same criticism is made of all kinds of accreditation situations, including recent articles on language schools in the UK in EL Gazette, but I think the ultimate test of an accreditation process is people failing it. Is it really possible to fail that process?
I believe so but you would have to pose that question to Tefl International.
The British Council will only accept accreditation connected to a university or exam board. Do you think that’s fair?
It is their prerogative whom they employ, it’s a respected international institution but still constitutes a small percentage of jobs on offer in the Tefl world. I understand they have close ties with CELTA, it’s a good assurance of quality as expected of schools under the direction of the British Foreign Office.
Isn’t the TI connection to universities mainly the old CMU connection? Doesn’t that make you being accredited by TI a rather strange accreditation circle?
The TI certificate is actually accredited by Thongsook University, but it’s a moot point, since the TEFL world has several courses that claim to be associated with universities, what’s more important is the EFL expertise behind your accreditation. Unitefl and TI have no present association with Chiang Mai University.
Are there any other connections to TI or similarities to their courses, e.g. do you use the teacher training textbooks by Dave Hopkins? How different would you say they are?
Our course is a blend of TI training materials, University developed materials and an extensive selection of additional resources. Over the years we believe we have seasoned our course with the best tools available. Our primary text book is “How to Teach English”, by Jeremy Harmer.
Does your course cost more than doing a simple TI course elsewhere? If so, what do people get for their extra money?
We offer a good value course, priced similarly to our Thailand competitors. Operating costs in this country make TEFL courses here generally cheaper than elsewhere. I’d say the difference is, we’re able to provide a comfortable study environment and additional classes on local cultural considerations. A primary component to our course is the practicum. We have partnered with several local government schools to allow our trainees the opportunity to practice teach in a real school environment.
Is the online course just the TI one, or is it different?
The online course we’ve developed independently of TI, you don’t get the international certificate and, of course, it lacks the critical interaction and classroom practice. It’s for those with limited budgets or already teaching and in need of brushing up on methodology.
Does your course do anything (better) than a Cambridge, Trinity or SIT qualification?
The comparison between these and the rest of the TEFL world is an on-going argument. Quite a few graduates point to the emphasis on theory with those, our particular course is noted for its practical, interactive, and hands on fun application, and the ability to teach in the context of Asian expectations. There’s emphasis on teaching kids, they have shorter attention spans of course, and that’s a large part of the job market. Our trainees repeatedly commend us on our rigorous course but offered in a relaxed atmosphere, they do have to pass the strict test at the end of course. . I think, ultimately, the choice on which school or course you choose is dependent on a variety of factors and the individual’s needs or preferences.
Is the course specific to teaching in Thailand at all? If so, how could that be a positive or negative for people who want to train in Thailand and then go straight to work elsewhere?
We do have modules that cover cultural expectations here in Thailand, and they would largely apply to Asian norms in general. The objective is to create mindfulness among our trainees to consider the culture of the country they are teaching in. Most of the course is concerned with general methodology, teaching techniques and applications. Developing the ability to recognize the ability level of your students and adapting your lessons accordingly. The teaching practices give you some experience with the exuberance or shyness of Thai kids; it might be different elsewhere in the world.
Is it possible to train people to teach kids and adults in four weeks?
Well, you do the best you can. In four weeks you can provide a basic foundation. Teaching is an on-going education whether you have four weeks’ or four years’ experience. Some have said CELTA ought to be 6 weeks long. As their acronym suggests, they are concerned with Adult ELT, but I understand their course methods can be practically applied to kids. We focus on kids, since that’s the largest part of the market, especially here in Thailand. Teaching adults just calls for some further experience in the classroom with that particular age group. Kids require games and activities to keep them engaged. The thing is, once trained to create good lesson plans, a teacher should be able to adapt and source materials to suit their class age.
Can you tell me about the Turbo TEFL?
Ah yes, we introduced this package specifically for teachers here in Thailand that lack TEFL training. We recognise that they might not manage to take a month off, or cannot afford the full course on a government school wage, so this is run twice a year during school holidays to give them methodology training at a cut price, but without the TI cert, nor the classroom practice.
What are the qualifications and experience of all present staff directly involved in observing, training and grading? What will be the minimum standards for similar staff in the future?
Experience is the most important qualification for us, and this applies to any business. Our school manager, Susan Hover, has several years experience as a TEFL administrator and a degree in business management, ensuring the course runs smoothly. Peter Bartolomew, the principal trainer, completed six months in-house “trainer” training during the CMU period, and now has four years of training behind him. Of course he had also taught at all levels for seven years prior to that. However, we recognise that qualifications are an essential benchmark for educators so I’m sending Pete on a Cambridge Delta course after the 2012 high season is over. Meanwhile we have also added Dr Rosemary Undag to the board, as Director of Studies; she has completed her doctorate in Education at the London Institute and has 20 years teaching and EFL training experience. These meet the minimum standards the board intends to maintain.
Can you quantify what those minimum standards will be?
Our course director will have post graduate studies in Education and/or TESOL related field. Head Trainer positions will require a minimum of three years teacher trainer experience or a DELTA, along with a minimum of three years ESL teaching. Co-trainers and observers are required to have a minimum of three years ESL teaching experience.
How do most students end up on the course? How difficult is the course to get on?
There is no pre course test for our TEFL course but we do conduct an interview with the prospective student to ensure their English is strong enough. Enrolment shouldn’t be a barrier, but we do have a responsibility to ensure that they are capable as it is the upmost importance to our Thai students, and prior graduates to maintain a high standard. Occasionally we will discourage someone enrolling if we think they do not have professionalism, confidence or presentation to be a teacher.
Is it really possible to teach as much as a CELTA in the same four weeks but with less pressure and have a less onerous entrance process but still maintain standards?
We see them as two different courses with different approaches. As previously mentioned, CELTA strives for a strict benchmark, but the preferences of the trainees is quite variable.
What are the failure and dropout rates?
Our dropout rate is relatively low, less than five percent, but you do get people who decide that teaching English just isn’t for them and fail to complete the course, there’s not much we can do for them. We’re able to steer most people towards passing the exam, and they must also pass six of our eight observed teaching practices; but in the past we have had to fail some students. We give them the option to sit in on classes again and retake the exam. There’s a challenging test at the end of our course, getting your certificate is not automatically assured.
One of the biggest objections to my blog post when it went up is that I said you need a degree to work in Thailand, but now your site says exactly that. I am genuinely confused!
This is a confusing one Alex; let me clarify the official and unofficial reality of teaching in Thailand. The Ministry of Education requires that applicants for a teaching licence hold a degree. With this teaching licence you can get a work permit sponsored by your school. In addition there is a two year waiver from obtaining a teaching licence which schools may apply for on behalf of the teacher. They also used to set a rather bizarre cultural test but that was recently dropped. The process is bureaucratic and impractical to say the least, so many languages schools end up employing teachers who don’t have a licence (no degree or other reasons), which leaves the teacher having to do visa runs and work ‘outside’ of the system. It’s common, we don’t condone it, but the reality is that there’s a huge demand for teachers, and having a degree doesn’t guarantee a good teacher. Oddly they don’t make a TEFL cert a minimum provision. For other countries I can’t really comment, but across Asia this is a common scenario.
How often does the course actually run? What have trainee numbers been like?
We run a course monthly, averaging 10 students per class, never more than 15, that’s quite rare in fact.
Do the student testimonials include ones from the old CMU course? If so, does that mean the course is totally unchanged?
We are trying to distance ourselves from Chiang Mai University, the Language Institute debacle and the present course being run by them (which is entirely different); as such we only include testimonials from the 150 people we’ve since trained. But our team does have the longevity in running a popular and successful TEFL course, so we do sometimes refer to our ‘five years’ of experience, which I think is realistic.
Any other questions or suggestions of what I should do with the original blog post before I make a decision?