The Full Federal Court has dismissed an appeal by Captain Cook College against a decision in July 2021 that it had engaged in a system of unconscionable conduct to secure additional government funding for online diploma courses under the former VET FEE-HELP loan program.
The Court also dismissed Captain Cook College’s appeal against findings that it had made false or misleading representations and failed to comply with the requirements for unsolicited consumer agreements in promoting and supplying its courses to five individual consumers.
The Court allowed Captain Cook College’s appeal in respect of findings of unconscionable conduct involving four of those consumers but upheld the finding in respect of one consumer.
The Full Court upheld the trial judge’s findings that Captain Cook College’s parent company, Site Group International Limited (Site) and Blake Wills (the former COO of Site) were both knowingly concerned in Captain Cook College’s system of unconscionable conduct, but reduced the period in which this involvement took place.
“We welcome the upholding of the Court’s finding of systemic unconscionable conduct by Captain Cook College as well as the finding that Site and Mr Wills were knowingly concerned in this conduct,” ACCC Commissioner Liza Carver said.
“We brought this case because there was clear evidence that Captain Cook College enrolled vulnerable and disadvantaged consumers in courses they were unlikely to ever complete or receive any vocational benefit from despite incurring a large VET FEE-HELP debt. Over 90 per cent of those consumers did not complete any part of their online course, and about 86 per cent of them never even logged into their course.”
“Captain Cook College sought to maximise its profit at the expense of students who were left with a debt, and at the expense of the Commonwealth, which made substantial payments under the VET FEE HELP scheme, which was funded by taxpayers,” Ms Carver said.
The case against Captain Cook College, Site and Mr Wills will now return to the trial judge for a hearing on the orders sought by the ACCC, including orders for pecuniary penalties and costs.
Productivity Partners Pty Ltd trading as Captain Cook College was a provider of online VET FEE-HELP diploma courses.
Captain Cook College was established in 1998, and was acquired by Site Group (ASX:SIT) in 2014. It ceased substantive trading at the end of 2016.
The ACCC commenced proceedings against Captain Cook College, Site Group, Ian Cook (the former CEO of Captain Cook College) and Mr Wills in November 2018.
In July 2021 the Federal Court found that Captain Cook College engaged in a system of unconscionable conduct and made false or misleading representations to prospective students in relation to online diploma courses following contested proceedings.
The ACCC and the Commonwealth have previously obtained judgments in relation to educational colleges against Unique International College, Cornerstone Investment Aust Pty Ltd (trading as Empower Institute), Australian Institute of Professional Education and Acquire Learning. The ACCC also instituted proceedings against Phoenix Institute of Australia Pty Ltd and Community Training Initiatives Pty Ltd, and is awaiting judgment on relief from the Federal Court in that matter.
VET FEE-HELP was an Australian Government loan program that assisted eligible students to pay their tuition fees for higher level vocational education and training (VET) courses at the diploma level and above, undertaken at approved VET FEE-HELP providers. The program was replaced by VET Student Loans from 1 January 2017.