Consumer watchdog targets rorting providers

28 October 2015

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Ten VET providers face prosecution as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) targets “unconscionable’’ sales tactics in the vocational education sector.

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Unique

Unique International College allegedly sent door to door salesmen into Aboriginal communities and handed out free laptops to people who could not use a computer, had no internet connection and who struggled to read or write, in return for their signatures on applications for online diplomas.

The ACCC  alleges the tactic earned the Sydney college more than $42 million in just six months this year alone, all of it from the federal taxpayer under the HECS-style VET Fee Help loan scheme.

Unique’s courses cost between $22,000 and $25,000 each under the unregulated Commonwealth system. In the 2014-15 financial year, Unique enrolled over 3600 students in online diplomas, receiving about $57 million in Commonwealth funding. Only 2.4% of people signed up to Unique College courses actually completed them.

The ACCC has sought Federal Court orders that Unique International College repay up to $57m of taxpayer funding it received by enrolling 3600 students last financial year.

In its first prosecution of a private training college, the ACCC has accused Unique International of unconscionable, misleading and deceptive conduct in selling costly courses to illiterate or disabled students in some of Australia’s poorest communities and is seeking repayment of those funds and the waiver of student debt.

ACCC chairman Rod Sims has revealed that 10 other colleges are under investigation, and he expected two more prosecutions before Christmas.

The ACCC claims the college targeted illiterate or disabled people living in remote Aboriginal communities, including near Bourke, Moree, Taree and Wagga Wagga.

It alleges that Unique college employees visited the towns with “boxes of laptop computers’’ to give to anyone who signed up to an online course.

In one case, the ACCC alleges Unique International College’s salesmen went to a housing commission house in Wagga Wagga, NSW, where a 41-year-old Aboriginal woman lived with her young son. She could read and write, “but not very well,” had a learning disability caused by a genetic disorder, could not use email and had no internet connection.

The salesman helped her fill in the forms, but did not tell the woman she was being enrolled in a course, and did not explain her obligations to repay the tens of thousands of dollars in course costs. Then he gave her a “free” laptop. Other salesmen were active in Aboriginal missions.

The ACCC  told the court the college “used unfair tactics, including ­offering inducements, in order to enrol students in its courses’’.

“Consumers were enrolled in courses that were not suitable for them, and which they were unlikely to be capable of completing, having regard to their limited formal education, limited literacy and numeracy skills and their lack of computer skills or access to email or internet connections at home,’’ the ACCC says in its statement of claim.

Unique International College chief executive Amarjit Singh said the college would “strenuously defend’’ the ACCC action:

Unique has sought at all times to comply with the relevant regulations and standards for private education providers, in the interests of providing our students with quality education and training outcomes.   We have operated within the policy and regulatory framework set out by the commonwealth government.

See
Vocational college allegedly preys on Aboriginal communities
ACCC chases $57m from college that ‘lured illiterate’
Living the high life: Unique College International’s Amarjit Khela
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