Amarjit Khela, also known as Amarjit Singh, arrives at the Federal Court in Sydney in 2016. Picture: Renee Nowytarger
Amarjit Khela, also known as Amarjit Singh, arrives at the Federal Court in Sydney in 2016. Picture: Renee Nowytarger

Massive rort run above $2 shop

A dodgy training college that rorted tens of millions of dollars from taxpayers by signing up vulnerable people to expensive government-funded courses has been hit with huge fines.

The Federal Court has ordered $4.16 million in penalties against Unique International College Pty Ltd, which pocketed almost $140 million in Commonwealth funds while operating from a tiny office above the Silly Willy's $2 shop in Granville in Sydney's west.

Founded by Indian immigrant Amarjit Singh, Unique was one of the worst rorters of the Gillard-era VET FEE-HELP scheme, which was shut down in 2016 amid widespread concerns about providers and marketers.

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.

 

Unique International College operated above Silly Willy’s $2 shop in western Sydney.
Unique International College operated above Silly Willy’s $2 shop in western Sydney.

 

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."

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission instituted proceedings against Unique in October 2015 after a joint investigation with NSW Fair Trading, alleging that its sales staff targeted vulnerable communities using door-to-door sales tactics.

In June 2017 the court found that Unique engaged in unconscionable conduct, misleading or deceptive conduct and breached the unsolicited consumer agreement provisions of the Australian Consumer Law.

RELATED: Dodgy college operator Amarjit Singh's TV show cancelled

 

“All of a sudden they became wealthy”.
“All of a sudden they became wealthy”.

In September 2018, Unique successfully appealed part of the Judgement, with the full court setting aside the finding of systemic unconscionable conduct - the $4 million in penalties relate to breaches of the Australian Consumer Law relating to six specific consumers.

The court found Unique engaged in unconscionable conduct against five consumers, made false or misleading representations to four of these consumers, and breached the unsolicited consumer agreements provisions in relation to six consumers.

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."

RELATED: Dodgy college gave away iPads to 'supercharge exploitation' of vulnerable communities, court finds

 

The ‘palatial’ $6 million Kenthurst mansion once owned by Unique.
The ‘palatial’ $6 million Kenthurst mansion once owned by Unique.

 

ACCC chairman Rod Sims said some of the consumers enrolled 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 in a statement.

Under the new VET FEE-HELP Student Redress measures, the Federal Government is in the process of cancelling the debts of consumers enrolled by Unique.

"We support the Commonwealth's continuing work to cancel these students' debts," Mr Sims said.

During the court case, the ACCC successfully sought freezing orders on the business' assets after $30 million was transferred to India.

Mr Sims told news.com.au in 2017 "significant sums of money" were returned but could not confirm a figure.

RELATED: Inside dodgy college operator's palatial estate

 

Amarjit Singh founded Unique in 2007.
Amarjit Singh founded Unique in 2007.

 

Last month, the Federal Court handed out a record $26.5 million penalty against Empower Institute and ordered it to repay more than $56 million in Commonwealth funding, after a finding of systemic unconscionable conduct.

A case against collapsed education broker Acquire Learning - co-founded by the nephew of former AFL boss Andrew Demetriou - which used aggressive telemarketing practices to sell diploma courses to jobseekers, resulted in a $4.5 million penalty.

The consumer watchdog has previously accepted court-enforceable undertakings to cancel enrolments and repay government loans from two colleges, Australian Vocational Learning Centre and Careers Australia, which went into voluntary administration in 2017.

frank.chung@news.com.au


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