February 2010 issue

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Right of return

Refunds are not normally a cause for concern among reputable business partners, but, says Jane Vernon Smith, it pays for agencies to be clued up about the types of refund agreements available and to check that partner schools have a published policy when it comes to dealing with complaints or cancellations.

Given the current global economic climate, it is natural that students should, more than ever, be looking to ensure that their language travel programme will deliver all that they expect from it. And while guarantees can never cover every detail, reputable operators work hard to offer assurances that cover many of the key areas of concern.

This means not only meeting expectations regarding the quality of tuition and accommodation, but also, importantly, providing reassurance that – in the event of unforeseen circumstances forcing a student to cancel their language travel trip – a fair policy is in place in respect of refunds.

In many countries, a basic framework of protection is offered in the form of consumer law. For example, the Australian Trade Practices Act, the German Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch or BGB, the Japanese Consumer Contract Act and the Italian Codice Consumo, all define certain rights and obligations in respect of cancellation and refunds. However, consumer legislation is primarily designed to protect against goods or services that fail to match their description, and would not generally require the supplier to offer any refund except in these circumstances.

Australian law goes further than most within the international education sector, with the Education Services for Overseas Students (Esos) Act, which exists specifically to regulate the education and training sector’s involvement with overseas students studying on a student visa. Esos sets minimum standards for providers, offering alternative tuition or financial assurance in the event of a school closure.

This Tuition Assurance Scheme (TAS) has been called into effect this year with the closure of a number of international colleges, such as Melbourne International College (see LTM, October 2009, page 7). A recent visa change exempting students already in-country from paying a second visa application charge to change provider in this very situation has been ushered in, in fact, after 4,700 students were affected by school closures in 2009 (see page 7).

In other countries, individual language schools and agents may well provide guarantees to students and agents that substantially exceed those required by law, and they are supported in this by industry associations, such as the International Association of Language Centres (Ialc), which are active in promoting quality standards (see box, page 30).

Range of refund options
While clients may often overlook the refundable aspect of their choice of educational product – assuming that there will be little variation in the guarantees offered by different agents and providers – this is actually far from the reality.

Cancellations and refunds is an area of great complexity. Different organisations ask for a variety of differently named deposits, booking fees, application fees and accommodation placement fees, which are frequently non-refundable. Similarly, different rules are applied regarding the amount that may be refunded and the point at which no refund will be offered.

At the English Language Centre in the Division of Continuing Studies at the University of Victoria in Canada, for example, Marketing Manager, Chris Gambrell, reports that students are charged an application fee of CAN$150 (US$144), a deposit of CAN$350 (US$335) and a homestay placement fee of CAN$250 (US$239), all of which are non-refundable. Course fees, however, may be refunded in full at any time prior to the start of the programme. At the Istituto Venezia in Venice, Italy, meanwhile, 80 per cent of the deposit will be refunded if notified up to 30 days prior to the start of the course, according to Director, Matteo Savini.

The Goethe Institute in Munich, Germany, is different again. As Dr Rainer Epbinder explains, this school operates a sliding scale, whereby, for cancellation up to four weeks prior to the start of the programme, the student will pay only a €e160 (US$241) administration fee. No refund is available after the start date, while accommodation can only be cancelled up to four weeks before the start, or payment must be received in full. Between one and four weeks before the start date, the school withholds 30 per cent of the course fee or €e160 (US$242), whichever is the greater, and for cancellation between one day and one week prior to the start date, 50 per cent of the course fee is withheld.

Genki Japanese and Culture School in Japan, on the other hand, will refund in full from a week after the date of cancellation. Therefore, as spokesman Evan Kirby explains, if the student informs the school of the cancellation on Wednesday, they will receive a refund of all fees from the next Wednesday onwards. The school also offers a full refund for cancellation up to two weeks prior to the start of the programme, minus only bank transfer fees. Clearly, then, cancellation can prove more or less costly, depending upon the institution as well as the exact circumstances around the cancellation.

Extenuating circumstances
While many schools have a published policy on refunds and cancellations, some will sometimes be more accommodating in practice than stated in their written terms. Patrick Creed, School Director at Bridge Mills Galway Language Centre in Galway, Ireland, highlights his own school’s stance, commenting, “We have a policy that covers partial refunds up to the start date of the course, but, in practice, if someone cannot come, we offer refunds.”

At Swan TAFE in Western Australia, the decision depends on the circumstances, according to spokesperson, Charmaine Ryan, who adds that its policy is generally sympathetic. “If no exact reason for withdrawal is included, we will usually refund the full [amount] (less costs) up until two weeks into the course and, thereafter, on a case-by-case basis,” she says.

One expense that usually is not refunded is the cost of a visa application.

However, some schools are particularly understanding, as Anastassia Romanenko of Insight Lingua agency in Russia underlines. She says, “[Schools’] policies basically vary from [offering] a full complete refund in case of visa refusal, to having a non-refundable booking fee, to students incurring the cost of one or two weeks of tuition and accommodation in the case of late cancellation, or completely non-refundable course and accommodation fees.” She notes that very often, a visa decision is received by the student less than two weeks before a programme starts.

To cover cases where a client is forced to cancel for good reason, such as visa refusal, because of personal or family illness, some schools, such as Education aBc in Oxford, UK, include insurance cover. This will pay out in such circumstances where the client would otherwise forfeit their fees paid, as spokesman, Andrew Brown of Education aBc points out.

Agent’s role
In cases where the programme booking has been made through an agent, it appears to be common practice for the agent to apply the refund policy of the school in question. However, any expenditure on the part of the agent that cannot be claimed back may be non-refundable, as is the case at Insight Lingua in Russia. At Ya Language School in Russia, clients are required to pay for services including couriers, dealing with educational providers, assistance with visa applications and translation of academic reports, as Managing Director, Sergey Serov, explains. However, in the case of visa refusal or course cancellation, these may be partially refunded to the student.

In Italy, agent Luciana Spelgatti of International Know How points out that there is a difference between those companies registered as tour operators and others. Authorised tour operators in Italy, she notes, give a greater level of guarantee to clients in the case of complaints, delayed travel, lack of services or bankruptcy, and are required to pay into an insurance fund to cover such eventualities. Similarly, Romanenko at

Insight Lingua reports that tour operators, such as her own company, are required to take out a certain level of liability insurance. “Basically, it means that if we fail to provide the service, and the client sues us, he’ll get a refund, either from us or from the insurance company.” However, she adds that very few educational agents in Russia are actually classed as tour operators – most, she claims, are classified under “consulting services”, which does not require a licence.

Most other areas where guarantees may be made in relation to language programmes are in the hands of the providers, rather than the agents. Nevertheless, depending on national law, agents may have a responsibility to ensure that the terms of their offer are met. According to Spelgatti, for example, in Italy, the agent’s brochure forms a contract. Everything written in it is considered as a guarantee, and agents have to specify the duration, as well as the number, of lessons included in each course.

Programme details
Class size and tuition level are also regarded as important factors and, as such, many – although not all – language schools provide guarantees in respect of them. Among those surveyed for this article, the maximum class size varied between seven (at Genki Japanese and Culture School, Japan) and 20 (Sendai Language School, Japan), with most set at between 12 and 18. Elsewhere, such as at Glasgow School of English in the UK, the school specifies an average class size.

In the experience of agent Romanenko, schools generally adhere to their guarantees on maximum class size. “Sometimes, they exceed it in high season, but not often,” she reports. She adds that providers also generally provide a guarantee concerning the availability of different course levels, although, in some cases where the number of students drops below a certain level, the number of hours’ tuition time may be reduced.

“We would say that, in 90 per cent of cases, these promises are delivered in full. In all other cases,” contributes Serov, “it is always possible to solve the matter somehow, if the client feels that the service was not delivered properly. Sometimes our assistance [in solving the matter] is not even required.”

For agents, published guarantees represent only one part of the equation. “Our responsibility is to advise our clients, and work with providers who keep their promises,” comments Romanenko.

Complaints handling

While most well run agencies and language schools would claim rarely to experience a complaint, the fact of having a published procedure for complaints handling is, nevertheless, important in respect of the reassurance it offers to clients and partners alike of fair treatment.

According to Anastassia Romanenko of Insight Lingua in Russia, any complaints concerning a language course tend to be addressed initially to the student’s agency, rather than direct to the language school attended. As such, Insight Lingua will begin negotiations with the school on the client’s behalf, and will aim to persuade the school to alter the arrangements to suit the client, rather than seek to convince them to refund fees, she states.

At fellow Russian agency, Ya Language School in Novosibirsk, Managing Director, Sergey Serov, underlines that every course-related complaint is examined thoroughly, and his company will always contact all parties involved, to gain a full understanding of the issues. When it comes to negotiating a refund, he confirms, “We are definitely involved.” However, as everything is written in the terms & conditions, there is usually nothing to negotiate, he adds, “except probably in some really rare cases”.

Italian agency International Know How’s Luciana Spelgatti reports that, according to their terms & conditions, clients are obliged to report any complaint within 10 days of their return home, or lose the right to compensation. In practice, however, “We normally try to meet clients’ economical request, if this is the case.”

For their part, many language schools have a formal complaints procedure, either of their own or through membership of one of the various language school associations. At Glasgow School of English in Scotland, course-related complaints are referred to the school’s Academic Director. President, Andrew Lennox, explains: “If we could not satisfy the student, we would look at each situation and make a decision. If the student was not satisfied with this decision, they could ask for the [school’s] president to arbitrate, or go to an external body [such as English UK].”

While procedures themselves are no guarantee of a mutually acceptable outcome, many language schools are keen to stress their flexibility when it comes to dealing with complaints. “Every single case is discussed with the school director, in order to meet the student’s needs, so there is no general rule that can be reported as universally valid,” explains Matteo Savini, Director at Italian language school, Istituto Venezia. “If the complaint is considered valid,” he adds, “we may refund up to 100 per cent.”

At Genki Japanese and Culture School in Japan, no client has so far asked for a refund for classes already taken, says spokesperson, Evan Kirby. However, such an eventuality would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. “In the Internet age, a customer who is both unhappy with the school AND with the refund policy could cause a real problem if he/she posts on message boards,” he points out. “So we would be inclined to refund at least a portion of the fees, to satisfy the customer to some extent.”

Industry standards

Industry associations, representing member institutions on regional, national and cross-national levels, in many cases have their own standards to which members must adhere, and these can include guarantees of a certain level of service or provision.

Ialc, a cross-national grouping of language schools with the common aim of promoting high standards, specifies minimum requirements and standards in all areas of language school operation via its quality assurance scheme and code of ethics.

“Complaints procedures and terms and conditions are, naturally, something which all Ialc schools must have,” comments Judith Hands, Vice-President, Quality Assurance, “and our First Inspections and subsequent audits every four years ensure that schools make these very clear to all clients – whether they be students booking directly, or agents.” Inspections are supplemented by an annual membership return, in which schools must also submit hard copy of both their most recent complaints procedure and terms & conditions/refunds policy. “This is checked rigorously, and it is a big administrative task,” Hands points out, “but one which we consider to be of prime importance.”

Ialc schools are also required to make guarantees regarding maximum class sizes and number of hours of teacher contact time. Furthermore, “We insist that schools clearly state their maximum class size on all publicity materials and their policy regarding testing and placement,” comments Hands. “They must also indicate clearly how many minutes constitute a lesson… With Ialc schools, an hour should mean 60 minutes and, if a lesson period is less [than this], then it must be very clear in the publicity or timetable how many minutes constitute a lesson.”

Canadian association, Languages Canada, also has its own code of ethics, adherence to which is a condition of membership, as Acting Executive Director, Linda Auzins, explains. This code is wide-ranging, and obliges members to: uphold the association’s accreditation standards; always provide accurate information about programmes, services and academic expectations; take out adequate insurance; deal fairly and ethically with students, other programmes and agents; and consent to be bound by the association’s dispute resolution policy. This latter, which is in place for managing serious disputes that are considered irreconcilable, must also be publicised to members’ students and agents.

The UK’s largest quality accreditation scheme – run jointly by UK language schools’ association, English UK, and the British Council – also includes a complaints procedure. This is promoted on multilingual posters in all member centres, as well as on the English UK website. The aim is always to achieve an amicable resolution, if at all possible, says Chief Executive, Tony Millns. He adds that, out of around 400,000 students a year attending courses at English UK member schools, the association receives

around 35 complaints each year, of which three or four will be referred to the Independent Ombudsman for judgement.
In respect of cancellation and refund policy, English UK centres must have “fair and reasonable booking terms and conditions”, which must be clearly stated in publicity materials, and members must give “accurate and clear” information on all services and resources on offer, which should include maximum class size, number of taught hours per week, accommodation, tuition fees and welfare support.
English UK also has a Student Emergency Support Fund to provide financial assistance where a member institution closes down before a student has completed their course. “The fund aims to minimise the effects of closure when students have paid fees for language courses at English UK member centres, [and] it ensures students can complete their studies and also covers money lost on accommodation fees,” says Millns.

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The following language schools, associations and accommodation providers advertised in the latest edition of Language Travel Magazine. If you would like more information on any of these advertisers, tick the relevant boxes, fill out your details and send.





English Australia  
Feltom Malta  
International House
      World Organisation  
MEI Ireland  
Quality English  

Alphe Conferences  
International House
      World Organisation  
British Boarding
      Schools Workshops  


LTM Digital  
Your World on

Office de Tourisme

Twin Group  
English Bay College

Ability Education  
English Australia  

Access International
      English Language
Canadian &
      International Student
English Bay College
Global Village  
Public Schools of the
      Canadian Rockies  
IH Tremblant /
      Explorencia Centre  
ILSC - International
      Language Schools
      of Canada  
Public Schools of
      the Canadian Rockies
Red Leaf Student
      Program and Tours  
Richmond School
      District #38  
Rocky Mountain
      School District  
Saint Mary's
      Kootenay School
Stewart College
       of Languages  
Vancouver English

IH Cairo  

      Language Schools  
Beet Language
Cambridge Academy
      Of English  
      Education Group  
Churchill House  
Devon School Of
Discovery Summer  
Eastbourne School
      Of English  
Eckersley Oxford  
English Language
      Centre Brighton &
English Studio  
Excel English  
Frances King School
      of English  
Hove College
ILS English  
International House
      World Organisation
Kaplan Aspect  
Kings Colleges  
Lake School of
Lewis School of
LAL Language and
(The) Language
Living Learning
(The) London School
      of English  
Malvern House
      College London  
Millfield English
      Language Holiday
Professionals UK  
Quality English  
Queen Ethelburgas
St Giles Colleges  
Study Group  
Twin Group  
University of Essex -  
Wimbledon School
      of English  

Accent Francais  
Alliance Française
      Paris Ile de France  
Office de Tourisme

BWS Germanlingua
F+U Academy of
inlingua Berlin  
International House
      Berlin - Prolog  

ATC Language and
Language College
Cork English
MEI Ireland  
The Linguaviva

Alpha School of
Clubclass Residential
      Language School  
Easy School of
Feltom Malta  
Global Village
      English Centre  
Inlingua Malta  
ETI Malta  

Rotorua English
      Language Academy
Worldwide School
      of English  

EAC Language
      Centres and Activity

EC Cape Town  
Eurocentres Cape
      Town- One World
      Language school  
Good Hope Studies  
inlingua Language
      Training Centre
      Cape Town  
Interlink School of
International House
      Cape Town  
Kurus English CC  
LAL Cape Town  
Language Teaching
Shane Global
      Language Centres -
      Cape Town  

EF Language
      Colleges Ltd  

Boston School of
      Modern Languages
Inlingua Language
IH New York  
NYC Language
University of
      California Riverside  
Zoni Language