A Hobart woman was landed with a $23,000 VET FEE-HELP debt for an online course that she could not access, despite multiple assurances from the service provider that there would be no charge.
She was one of 13 examples cited in a Federal Court case brought by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission against Australian Institute of Professional Education, which was found to have engaged in "unconscionable" conduct.
The woman uploaded her resume to Seek in 2014 and was contacted by an organisation soon after offering to enrol her in a free "government funded" Diploma of Business with a loaned laptop, which she agreed to.
She did not receive login details or information about the course from AIPE, despite multiple phone calls and emails. AIPE contacted her multiple times asking her to start the course, but she had no access to any material.
She attempted to withdraw from the course in 2015, but her request was not logged. An AIPE representative also asked her "do you want to be on Centrelink for the rest of your life?" following the cancellation request.
Despite multiple reassurances that the course was free, the woman logged on to myGov in 2017 and noticed a $23,000 VET FEE-HELP debt in relation to AIPE.
Justice Robert Bromwich said this was an example of the unconscionable practices of AIPE.
"The [ACCC] assert, and I accept, that the representation that the course was free was false, misleading and deceptive conduct," he said.
The court heard the Commonwealth would pay the course fee to AIPE upon enrolment confirmation, while the student incurred a debt of 120 per cent of the course fee.
AIPE had contracts with 35 service providers to enrol students in VET courses, including clauses for a minimum number of students to be referred each month. Agents were given a commission of between 15 to 25 per cent of the course fee for each student enrolled.
The court was told agents would visit low socio-economic communities, rural towns and remote areas with Aboriginal populations to "recruit disadvantaged or vulnerable students".
Some of the other 12 examples brought to the court referred to Aboriginal people being signed up in similar circumstances to the Hobart woman.
A survey of 564 AIPE students found 55 per cent had not participated in a course due to lack of computer or internet access and 36 per cent were not aware they were taking out a VET FEE-HELP loan.
AIPE argued the examples cited were isolated and the company could not be held responsible for the actions of service providers.
Justice Bromwich upheld the action brought by the ACCC against AIPE.
"I find that the [ACCC] have established that AIPE engaged in a system of conduct or pattern of behaviour that was, in all the circumstances, unconscionable," he said.
The matter will return to court next year to determine repayment of funds to the Commonwealth, penalties and legal costs.