A wide variety of further education courses and tutorial classes are available on the market to cater to the needs of students or individuals pursuing personal development. Some further education courses might even be eligible for reimbursement by the Continuing Education Fund (CEF). However, the Consumer Council received a number of consumer complaints relating to educational institutions and tutorial service providers, mainly involving sales practices, quality of courses, and contract terms, etc. Consumers should pay heed when enrolling in such courses.
The Council reminds consumers to compare different courses before enrolling, and to scrutinise the terms and conditions prior to signing any documents. Clarify with the staff immediately if anything is unclear, and do not make decisions based on the sales representative’s verbal promises. Besides, after transaction, all receipts and related correspondence should be retained for record. Vulnerable consumers should stay alert to the potential risks of deceptive sales claims and should compare and verify course details prior to making a purchase decision. The Council also urges course providers to ensure the accuracy and transparency of information provided to consumers, as well as to step up the training and monitoring of their sales representatives so as to safeguard consumer rights.
Case 1: Successful Admission into Results-guaranteed Course Despite Failing to Meet the Minimum Benchmark Requirements
Having been pitched by a staff member of Institution A, the complainant completed an English proficiency test and subsequently enrolled in an IELTS 6.0 score-guaranteed course and mock exam at a tuition fee of $12,000. The consultant claimed to offer free course retake if the consumer failed to get an IELTS score of 6.0. After completing the first lesson, the complainant felt that the course content was too advanced and reached out to the staff asking to cancel the course and to get a refund. However, only at this point did the staff member notify the complainant he had only achieved grade 7 in the admissions test, while the complainant discovered afterwards that the free course retake was only valid for students who achieved grade 9 or 10 in the English proficiency test. The complainant suspected that the staff member had peddled an unsuitable course to him from the very beginning while omitting to mention the minimum admission requirement of the Institution. Opining that this was deceptive, the complainant requested a full refund from the institution but was denied, thus lodged a complaint with the Council.
Responding to the Council, Institution A claimed that the admissions test results were for enrolment reference only, whereas the Institution would make relevant arrangements according to students’ ability. Institution A also opined that the enrolment terms of the mock exam had stated that no refund would be offered. Besides, as the Institution had already provided the complainant with classes, orientation, creation of an online learning account, course materials and reservation of 30 sessions, it was difficult to offer a full refund. After the Council’s conciliation, Institution A only offered a discretionary refund with a handling fee of $1,000 deducted, but the complainant did not accept this solution and considered seeking redress through other legal means.
Case 2: Home Tutorial Service Became Hotline Homework Consultation
A staff member of Company B visited the home of the illiterate complainant, claiming to be Government personnel paying a home visit upon referral by social workers. The staff member also had a document in hand which she claimed to be the exam paper of the complainant’s daughter. Unsuspectingly, the complainant told the staff member that one-on-one home tutoring service for her daughter was needed. As alleged by the complainant, the staff member offered to arrange a home tutor at a specified time for an annual tuition fee of $4,500, which was accepted by the complainant. The staff member issued a receipt on the spot, yet “hotline homework consultation” was written on it. While the complainant was illiterate, the staff member also did not read out the receipt’s content, but instead immediately arranged for the first tutorial session for the following day. On the next day, when no tutor showed up at the prearranged time, the complainant called Company B to enquire. Company B informed her that the service she purchased for was homework consultation via phone call or WhatsApp. The complainant thus sought assistance from the Council.
Company B expressed that the salesperson had clearly explained to the complainant at the time that the service was for homework consultation through a phone hotline or WhatsApp text messaging, but not home tutorial, and that the receipt had also clearly stated as such. Therefore, the Company would continue to provide the service as laid out in the contract terms on the receipt and a refund would not be arranged. As both parties were unrelenting, a resolution could not be reached. As the complainant expressed that she had fully relied on the verbal service statement of the staff member, opining that the staff member had made a false statement during the sales process, the Council referred the case to the Customs and Excise Department (C&ED) after seeking the consent of the complainant. After investigation, the C&ED cited that there was insufficient evidence that Company B had violated the Trade Descriptions Ordinance. The result of the investigation was also communicated to the complainant afterwards.
Case 3: Tuition Fee Not Collected on an “Equal Monthly Instalments Basis” as Required by CEF
While visiting the book fair, the complainant was peddled by a staff member of Institution C to join an English course reimbursable by the CEF. After attending the admission proficiency test, the complainant enrolled for the course and paid the full tuition fee of $26,500. After completing the first session, the complainant found the course too basic, and also doubted whether the admission test, which only comprised 15 multiple choice questions, could indeed reflect one’s language ability accurately. The complainant thus requested withdrawal and a refund, but Institution C did not agree. The complainant further discovered that in order to apply for reimbursement of the language benchmark test fee from CEF, supporting documents for the test fee payment must be provided to CEF, yet the receipt issued by Institution C did not list out the payment specifics. Besides, the CEF requires all course providers to collect the tuition fees on an “equal monthly instalments basis”, meaning that for courses longer than a month, the tuition fee should be broken down into instalments equivalent to the number of months required for completing the course. However, Institution C had requested payment in full, which might be in violation of the CEF’s requirements. The staff of the Institution had even requested the complainant to sign a statement, which included a clause stating that the course was originally for 1 month only but was extended upon the complainant’s request, hence the Institution would keep the arrangement of collecting the full tuition fee in one go. Suspicious of the Institution’s intent to bypass the CEF’s requirement through the statement, the complainant sought help from the Council.
After the Council’s conciliation, Institution C offered to refund the balance after deducting the first monthly instalment of the tuition fee and a 5% handling charge. The complainant did not agree to this proposal and demanded a full refund from Institution C. After the Council’s repeated conciliation, Institution C eventually agreed to refund $25,000 after deducting a 5% handling charge. The complainant accepted this arrangement.
Concluding the cases above, although the institutions had arranged benchmark tests to assess consumers’ language proficiency level, the relevant tests appeared to be overly basic and generic in format, which might not be able to accurately reflect the consumer’s language ability. As a result, courses recommended based on the test results might not be suitable for the consumer and could harm consumer rights. Besides, if the terms of the course could be affected by the admission test results, institutions should proactively inform the students of their test scores and recommend suitable courses based on the result. If students find the course level inappropriate after attendance, the institution should make relevant arrangements upon request, such as allowing transferral to a more suitable course. Additionally, if institutions attempt to distort the CEF’s tuition fee collection requirements by means of binding contractual terms, they might be in violation of the CEF’s regulations.
Consumers could refer to the following when enrolling in different courses:
- After confirming the learning scope and goals for further education, consumers should compare the details of courses offered by different institutions, including the course content and fees, lesson format, time and location, as well as the arrangements for payment, make-up classes and cancellation, etc.;
- Consumers could consider joining the free tests or even trial lessons offered by institutions, but should be mindful of the trial lesson’s terms and refrain from rushing into paying a “reservation fee”. If institutions offer a result-guaranteed scheme, consumers should pay heed to the criteria for such guarantees. All transaction documents and terms and conditions of the contract should be retained as evidence in case of future disputes;
- If the course provider collects students’ information through a questionnaire, consumers should be extra mindful of the disclosure and use of personal data. If a door-to-door salesperson attempts to peddle courses and claims to have your child’s school report card, consumers should carefully verify the salesperson’s identity as well as the source and authenticity of the documents. Do not simply trust the verbal promises of salespeople, sign documents or make any payments;
- Before arranging tutorial services for their children, consumers should communicate with them to understand their needs, as well as finding out more about the reputation of the tutorial school and the tutors’ qualifications before making a purchase decision;
- Before enrolling in a CEF reimbursable course, consumers are recommended to check the “Reimbursable Course List” and reimbursement conditions on the CEF’s official website. If the course duration is more than a month but the institution did not collect the tuition fee on an “equal monthly instalments basis”, consumers should raise the issue with the institution immediately. One should also pay heed to the attendance and results requirements for CEF reimbursement application.
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