Students lured by false promises of study cafesLast July, university student Kim Tae-hyun decided to register at a study cafe.
He was initially won over by the course’s advertisement, which promised “natural conversation with foreign friends.”
The cafe recommended that he register for a six-month class at a cost of about 398,000 won ($374). Month-by-month registration, the administrators told him, was not an option.
At first Kim felt hesitant. He wasn’t sure if he should make such a commitment, but the idea of taking a two-hour class just twice a week with foreign speakers appealed to him, so he put his reservations aside and signed.
From the first class, Kim was disappointed. There were no foreign students - not even a textbook - and the class was organized around a Korean student’s printouts. While the topics were relevant, there was no attempt at practical discussion.
The course was nothing like what he expected, and after his seventh class - completely fed up - Kim asked the cafe administrators for a refund.
But a refund, they told him, was impossible.
So Kim chose to hand over his class coupons to another student.
“I only took one-sixth of the classes, and I’ve handed over 200,000 won for it, which is about half the price,” he said. “The cafe even asked me to pay an additional 30,000 won to hand over my coupons.”
Another student, surnamed Sim, expressed nearly identical complaints about the same study cafe. “The classes weren’t conducted by the teachers who went through proper training to become a teacher,” said Sim. “It didn’t help improve my English at all.”
By law, private academies are required to follow certain regulations, providing appropriate refunds to students before the start of a course when necessary.
When a student attends less than one-third of the course, he or she can get up to two-thirds of tuition refunded.
If the student only attends half the course, then he or she can legally collect at least half the tuition amount back.
However, study cafes fall into a legal gray area. And because they aren’t technically hagwon - or for-profit specialty schools - there are no official policies that apply. Without recourse, most students must eat the cost themselves if they decide to drop a class.
Administrators at four out of five major study cafes that run dialogue classes for about 150,000 won per month admitted that they do not have to provide refunds because they are not registered as private academies, but as cafes.
Meanwhile, Sim handed over his coupons for the class, taking a 370,000 won hit. He only attended four sessions.
That particular cafe allegedly conducted English interviews and selected Korean leaders who had experiences studying abroad. They took control of the study, and instead of receiving payments, the leaders were allowed to participate in other conversation classes.
“If [the cafes] have conducted their classes for more than 30 days with more than 10 students, they’re considered private academies,” said Moon Jung-gu, a lawyer from Hangil Law firm.
“If they have received money and have a set period and curriculum fixed for the course, in addition to providing a physical location, then they should definitely be following the private academy law,” Moon added.
When the JoongAng Ilbo asked the Ministry of Education about the legitimacy of one of Seoul’s biggest study cafes, which has eight branches, a representative said the ministry was looking into the matter.
“After looking into the sites of these cafes, it seemed more likely that they were running as private academies, so we have ordered investigations with local education authorities,” the representative responded.
“When the accusation turns out to be true, the cafes will be admonished.”
BY KOO HYE-JIN [firstname.lastname@example.org]