Among modern-day business rorts, the privately-owned colleges selling education courses to overseas students are in a category of their own.

They advertise widely in Asia, the Middle East and in the ethnic press in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to attract suckers … er, I mean, students … to sign up for expensive courses for up to two years.

On receipt of a hefty deposit for their $10,000-$15,000 courses, students are supplied with a two-year student visa which enables them to work for 20 hours a week to earn extra cash.

In many cases, the students from China, Thailand and Egypt work for other family members in family businesses already established in Australia while others earn between $8 and $16 an hour (cash in hand) as cheap labour, some on non-unionised construction sites.

Because they lack basic English language skills, the majority are required to undertake a 10-week English course — for which the colleges charge an extra $300-$400.

Students are compelled to take out private health cover at more than $300 a year. All colleges collect the money, but how many send it on to health insurance providers?

Under government guidelines, students are required to have nine hours of face-to-face tuition each week. This is largely theoretical as many students are labouring in full-time jobs and don’t have time to attend. Unscrupulous colleges falsify their attendance records to give a glowing picture of their training achievements.

One former executive of a Sydney college was so appalled by its practices that he has written to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, federal Education Minister Julia Gillard, Sydney Federal MP and Housing Minister Tanya Plibersek and other political figures to complain. He has only heard back from Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson who basically asked what the others had said in response.

The former executive, who has requested anonymity, believes there are three reasons for the studied lack of interest in the private college sector:

  • It provides jobs for Australians
  • It collects sizeable taxation revenue
  • It provides a pool of temporary cheap labour.

Under the late and unlamented Howard Government, the private college sector was encouraged to flourish. Howard ideologues saw business colleges as a free market alternative to the training provided by TAFE which, like the ABC, the CSIRO and university campuses, was viewed as a menacing socialist indoctrination centre.

The registration of Registered Training Organisations (RTOs) is the responsibility of state governments which are expected to follow guidelines laid down by the Commonwealth.

In NSW, registration and monitoring of colleges are in the hands of the Department of Education and Training whose minister, John Della Bosca, has been stood down over the Iguanagate scandal in which he and his wife, federal MP Belinda Neal, are facing a police investigation.

The NSW Director-General of Education is Michael Coutts-Trotter, husband of Housing Minister Plibersek, another “golden power pair” of the NSW ALP.

According to sources from the private education industry, the more conscientious foreign students feel “cheated” by the second-rate teaching they receive from ill-qualified staff who lecture in under-resourced centres in dilapidated office blocks. When fly-by-night operators go broke and close their doors, students lose the fees they have already paid in advance and face being deported as their visas expire.

They return to their homelands broke, without any meaningful qualification or diploma, disillusioned with Australia and their lives in serious disorder.

As the college executive who spoke anonymously to Crikey said: “No-one has yet examined the social toll resulting from psychological and economic factors resulting from this trade. Australia should hang its head in shame.”