An education firm that used a range of "unconscionable" sales tricks to sign people living in disadvantaged communities to $20,000 courses has been found guilty by the Federal Court of Australia.
This is the second judgment to be made against an education firm in recent
times after the Federal Court ruled Get Qualified Australia violated the consumer rights of 5000 students.
The judgment, brought before the courts by the Australian Competition and
Consumer Commission (ACCC), marks the conclusion of an operation that harmed the
disadvantaged and cost taxpayers close to $60 million in government loans.
The court ruled in the ACCC's favour, finding Unique International College
systematically acted unconscionably and misled 3600 people by signing them
up to courses they believed were free.
But the cost of the diplomas – between $10,000 and $25,000 – would have
to be paid back once the students earned over $54,000 under the
government's HELP scheme.
The ACCC is pursuing Unique International College for the $57m paid by
the government in student loans, claiming those that signed up would not be
able to pay back the debt. The competition watchdog claims, of the people
who signed up between July and December 2014, that only 2.4% of them
completed their course.
Unique International College recruited people with face-to-face pitches – including door-to-door sales – targeting those in remote areas and from
poor socio-economic backgrounds, says Rod Sims, chair of the ACCC.
"Unique took advantage of some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged
members of our community," he says.
"Our focus is now on ensuring that the affected consumers will not remain
in debt because of Unique's exploitative behaviour."
Several of the people enrolled lived in former Aboriginal missions in
Bourke, Wagga Wagga, Walgett and Taree.
Those affected were not only told that the courses would be free, but that
they would receive free laptops or iPads in behaviour that "supercharge[d]
the exploitation of the disadvantaged group that was being targeted".
The court heard Unique International College earned $130m from 2013
to 2015, which was considered an enormous stream of revenue for a school
located on top of a general store in Granville, NSW.
The ACCC is seeking redress for affected consumers by cancelling enrolments
and debts. The ACCC and Department of Education are seeking orders for the
repayment of the funds paid by the Commonwealth.
The matter is now listed for a hearing on penalties and other relief on a
date to be determined.