The Federal Court has ordered $4.165 million in penalties against Unique International College Pty Ltd (Unique), for engaging in unconscionable conduct against five consumers, making false or misleading representations to four of these consumers, and breaching the unsolicited consumer agreements provisions in relation to six consumers.
The Court found that Unique had engaged in this conduct when it enrolled these consumers in VET FEE-HELP funded courses, costing up to $22,000.
The Court also found Unique lured some of these consumers with the offer of free laptops to derive revenues from the Commonwealth to the detriment of consumers.
Commenting on the case of one individual consumer, the judge said: "This was the exploitation of an obviously very vulnerable person for financial gain. It is difficult to imagine unconscionable conduct which could be worse.”
“These students enrolled by Unique were unlikely to be able to complete the courses, but would have been left with significant lifetime student debt,” ACCC Chair Rod Sims said.
“Some of these consumers enrolled in courses by Unique had poor literacy skills, and others could not use computer or did not have an internet connection.”
“The ACCC will always prioritise taking action against businesses which engage in egregious conduct impacting vulnerable and disadvantaged consumers,” Mr Sims said.
Using the new VET FEE-HELP Student Redress measures, the Commonwealth is in the process of cancelling the debts of eligible consumers enrolled by Unique.
“We support the Commonwealth’s continuing work to cancel these students’ debts,” Mr Sims said.
Notes to Editors
VET FEE-HELP Student Redress Measures
The VET FEE-HELP Student Redress Measures came into effect on 1 January 2019. The new measures provide a remedy for eligible students who, due to the inappropriate conduct of their VET provider, incurred debts under the VET FEE-HELP loan scheme.
If you were affected, contact the VET Student Loans Ombudsman (part of the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman) who will assess and investigate your complaint (http://www.ombudsman.gov.au/How-we-can-help/vslo).
If it's confirmed that you incurred your debt because of inappropriate behaviour by your provider, the Ombudsman may make recommendations to the Department of Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business to cancel your VET FEE-HELP debts.
The ACCC and the Commonwealth Department of Education and Training commenced proceedings against Unique in October 2015 following a joint ACCC and NSW Fair Trading investigation.
Unique was a provider of VET FEE-HELP Diploma courses which cost up to $22,000 per course. It marketed and sold these courses using face-to-face marketing, including door-to-door sales. Courses marketed to consumers included Diploma of Management, Diploma of Business and Diploma of Salon Management.
Unique marketed and sold VET FEE-HELP funded courses to consumers in remote communities and low socio-economic areas, including Indigenous communities, in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland. Unique enrolled approximately 4,000 consumers in VET FEE-HELP courses in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria.
In June 2017, the Federal Court handed down judgment on liability which found that Unique engaged in unconscionable conduct, misleading or deceptive conduct and breached the unsolicited consumer agreement provisions of the Australian Consumer Law.
In September 2018, the Full Court upheld Unique’s appeal which set aside the finding of systemic unconscionable conduct, so these penalties relate to various breaches of the ACL in respect of six consumers.
The ACCC’s recent successful case against Empower involved findings of systemic unconscionable conduct was the reason for the higher penalty imposed and formed the basis for the Court to order Empower to repay the funding it had received from the Commonwealth.
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