Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Unique International College Pty Ltd could face multi-million-dollar fines

Yet another example of the Australian Government’s failed vocational education privatisation policy ……..

On 12 February 2016 Unique International College Pty Ltd had its membership of the Australian Council for Private Education and Training terminated – this was challenged by the company and that matter is still before the Supreme Court,

On 18 April 2017 Unique International College’s VET Provider Approval  was revoked.

At that point students who had been enrolled under VET in the college’s  Diploma of Management,  Advanced Diploma of Management, Diploma of Salon Management and Diploma of Marketing were liable for individual debts of up to $25,000.

By the time this ‘college’ came to the attention of the Australian Consumer Affairs Commission in 2015 its annual income after tax had reached $33.7 million.

It was alleged that Unique had targeted particular locations for enrolment purposes. These towns and cities were said to be situated in areas where inhabitants were generally people of lower socio-economic means and/or were comprised of a higher percentage of indigenous persons than the average eastern Australian town or city. These locations were said to include: Bankstown, Boggabilla, Bourke, Brewarrina, Emerton, Moree, Taree, Toomelah, Walgett, Wagga Wagga and Granville. At these locations it is then said that Unique conducted marketing operations by, inter alia, calling on consumers at their homes for the purpose of conducting group marketing activities. At these group marketing events, it is alleged that Unique’s staff told the attendees that its courses were free or free until they reached a particular level of income following completion of their chosen course. At the same time, free laptops were allegedly handed out to those who signed up. It is also alleged that the staff were on remuneration arrangements which were based on the number of students whom they were able to convince to enrol.

The Federal Court judgment found that:

The Applicants’ case was that Unique had a ‘system of conduct or pattern of behaviour’ within the meaning of s 21(4)(b) of the ACL. The four features of the Applicants’ case on this which I have accepted are:

(a) the strategy of targeting disadvantaged people by reference to indigeneity, remoteness and social disadvantage (whether deliberate in its original conception or not);
(b) the use of gifts of laptops or iPads to students signing (or loan computers after 31 March 2015);
(c) the use of incentives to staff to encourage them to sign up students; and
(d) the holding of sign-up meetings…..

The effect of the system in (b) to (d) was to supercharge the exploitation of the disadvantaged group which was being targeted (and also Unique’s remarkable profits). The system was unconscionable within the meaning of s 21.

ABC News reported the matter on 30 June 2017:

A private college in Sydney breached consumer law when it signed up thousands of students to loans without them knowing, the Federal Court has ruled.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) took action against the Unique International College in Granville.

It alleged the training college, owned by Amarjit Singh, misled up to 3,600 people when it enrolled them in courses, giving them free laptops and telling them the class was free when in fact they were incurring VET FEE-HELP loans of up to $25,000.

The debt would be payable if they earned more than $54,126 per annum……

Judge Nye Perram found the college made false representations and engaged in a pattern of behaviour that amounted to unconscionable conduct in breach of Australian Consumer Law.

Mr Sims said it was a significant victory and the college could face multi-million-dollar fines.

"Our focus is now on ensuring that the affected customers will not remain in debt because of Unique's exploitative behaviour," he said.

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