People who knew Amarjit Singh were left scratching their heads. How did he go from a tiny office above a shop to living in $6 million house? The answers would reveal themselves when his world came crashing down!
The plan was simple, give people free laptops and get them to sign a form thanking them for accepting the laptop. What those vulnerable people did not realise was that they were, in fact, signing up to expensive government-funded courses.
The Australian federal court has now ordered $4.16 million in penalties against Unique International College Pty Ltd. The collage pocketed almost $140 million in Commonwealth funds whilst operating from a tiny office above Silly Willy’s $2 shop in Granville in Sydney’s west.
Amarjit Singh from Unique was one of the worst rorters of the Gillard-era VET FEE-HELP scheme (similar to student loans for tuition fees), which was shut down in 2016 amid widespread concerns about providers and marketers.
Unique lured the consumers to enrol in the courses, which cost up to $22,000, with the offer of free laptops or iPads, the court found.
“This was the exploitation of an obviously very vulnerable person for financial gain,” the judge said of one consumer.
“It is difficult to imagine unconscionable conduct which could be worse.”
Billions of dollars in loans were issued to students and pocketed by colleges, likely to never be repaid.
Singh, a former journalist, set up the company in 2007, but it saw a rapid increase in enrolments after gaining approval as a VET FEE-HELP provider 2013.
That year, Unique had 631 students, but by 2015, the number had increased sharply to 4677.
In the 2014-15 financial year, Unique enrolled more than 3600 students and was paid approximately $57 million by the Commonwealth.
In total, the college accessed $139.9 million in Commonwealth funds.
Until July 2015, Unique International College was the owner of a $5.8 million “palatial estate” in Sydney’s Kenthurst, replete with 12-car garage, tiered 14-seat home cinema, marble bathrooms, an in-ground pool, a three-station beauty salon, a gym, a children’s toy room, and a grand function room with its own dancefloor.
Members of Sydney’s Sikh community said the Singh family’s rapid success had been remarkable.
“All of a sudden they became wealthy,” one lawyer told news.com.au in 2015. “They shocked the community with that $6 million house.”
Unique made a net after tax profit of $8.2 million in 2014 and $33.8 million in 2015, the ACCC (Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) told the court.
Justice Perram found Unique acted deliberately in remote communities on a number of occasions, including Walgett in October 2014, Wagga Wagga in March 2015 and Bourke in June 2015 but “was ignorant” to the fact it was contravening consumer law.
However, Unique agreed it “did not have a corporate culture that promoted compliance with [Australian Consumer Law]” and did not train its staff to comply with the law.
“One of Unique’s employee witnesses stated in cross-examination that he had not in fact heard of [Australian Consumer Law],” Justice Perram wrote.
The college has been found to have acted unconscionably in connection with goods or services, made false or misleading representations, failed to inform of a termination period, did not give a required document to a consumer and contravened requirements for all unsolicited consumer agreements.
It previously had its registration cancelled and is no longer operating.