College tricked disadvantaged into $25k courses, Federal Court finds

ACCC aims to recover more than $50m in taxpayer funded loans.

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.