02 November 2015
by Gabriela Motroc

Private Sydney college accused of recruiting illiterate and disabled students

A private Sydney college is being accused of recruiting disabled and illiterate students to collect thousands of dollars in loans to finance courses they were not told they were being signed up for, according to documents lodged in the federal court.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission joined forces with the NSW Fair Trading Department and launched an investigation against the Unique International College in Sydney’s western suburbs. According to the inquiry, the private college engaged in “unconscionable conduct” in convincing students to sign up for courses worth up to $25,000 AUD.

Amarjit Khela, the company’s founder and chief executive, is an important member of Sydney’s Nepalese and Indian community, hosting disaster charity events, beauty pageants for Mr and Miss Teen Nepal Australia and Bollywood film screenings. The tactics helped the private college amass a profit of over $11 million AUD in six months in 2014 after it received up to $47 million AUD in taxpayer funding between January and December 2014. Fairfax Media reported that the ACCC will ask the court to make the Unique International College repay the money it received to date in Commonwealth government funding.

The ACCC’s statement of claim in late October shows students supposedly targeted by the college founded by Khela were often from Aboriginal housing missions in NSW’s most disadvantaged areas, including Bourke, Boggabilla and Walgett. Sales agents would allegedly entice students and their families with free laptops and would ask them to sign a number of forms that they could not understand. However, by signing the forms, students unknowingly accepted Commonwealth VET-FEE Help debts of $10,000 AUD to $25,000 AUD.

Students had no idea that courses in marketing and business marketing and salon management were free as long as they did not earn more than $50,000 AUD per year, Fairfax Media reported. The ACCC alleges that no more than 2.4 per cent of the private college’s students graduated between July and December 2014. According to a case cited by the ACCC, a 19-year-old disabled man was allegedly signed up for thousands of dollars in Commonwealth debt even though he did not receive any information regarding the course or the college that was offering it. The man was under the full-time care of his grandmother and lived in Wagga Wagga, which is 400 kilometres away from the Unique International College.

Another case revealed that a 66-year-old Indigenous woman was targeted by the college’s sales agents to complete an online course even though she was illiterate, had never had a laptop, internet connection, email or any acceptable means by which to pay the course fees.

Unique International College’s website shows the private college maintains a relationship with the Australian Catholic University. However, a spokeswoman for the university told Fairfax Media ACU’s agreement with the college concluded in April 2015. The private Sydney college announced in a statement that it would defend the action being brought by the ACCC. Rod Sims, the chairman of the ACCC explained that Unique International College was targeted because the regulator believed its conduct was “unconscionable.”

In early 2015, another private Sydney college was accused of claiming federal student training loans for students who graduated without relevant skills. Former staff claimed that if students wished to leave Australasian College Broadway, the institution blocked their attempts to withdraw from a course by ignoring phone calls or tearing up a letter, the ABC reported.

Unique International College will appear before the Federal Court on November 24.