She was assigned to teach 80 students at Sydney’s Unique International College, but hairdressing teacher Penny Martin never heard from one of them, a court has heard.
They were some of the more than 2000 students that Unique International College recruited to its campus in Granville, while the college accrued more than $57 million in taxpayer funding.
On Wednesday, the college and its owner, Amarjit Singh, faced the Federal Court on a charge of unconscionable conduct in the first of a series of trials as the government attempts to reclaim more than $420 million in taxpayer funding from the vocational education sector.
The college is accused of recruiting disabled, illiterate students from Aboriginal missions and putting them into student debt worth tens of thousands of dollars through promises of free laptops.
Acting for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Norman O’Bryan, SC, alleged that Mr Singh, also known as Amarjit Khela, pursued the exponential growth of the college “in order to maximise profitability for him and his family.”
Unique College and Mr Singh deny the allegations and claim the college was operating a legitimate business.
The court heard that when Ms Martin sent emails to her 80 online students who had been enrolled in a Diploma of Salon Management courses costing up to $20,000, she not only received no replies, but 40 were bouncebacks from non-existent email addresses.
“It was bamboozling me,” said Ms Martin. “Eighty students is a lot, it’s like sheep-dogging your sheep.”
Ms Martin said she was paid $5 per “generic welfare email” she sent to the students up to 10 times over a six-week period.
Court documents reveal that of the 440 students who enrolled in online courses with the college 100 kilometres from its Granville headquarters, 306 never logged on to the portal.
“When you don’t see any students, you are concerned,” said Ms Martin.
When she spoke to Mr Singh, he allegedly told her the college was facing financial difficulties, before confiding in her that he wanted to write a script for a Bollywood movie. Mr Singh denies speaking with Ms Martin about the college finances.
In an email tendered to court, Unique’s course co-ordinator responded quickly to Ms Martin’s query. “Anyways don’t worry about failure notices, you keep sending emails to students,” the email said.
Ms Martin told the court that when she was invited to attend a class in person she found a class of 60-year-old Filipinos doing a course in salon management.
“One had a hip replacement and a walking stick,” she told the court. “A lot of the computers in the college did not work, a lot of things were broken.”
Representing Mr Singh, David Pritchard, SC, said that the college was going through a transition from one IT student management system to another at the time of Ms Martin’s employment from November 2014 to February 2015.
The new system would enable students to interact with the college without having to go through a teacher.
“There was a fundamental change in the way the company deals with students,” he said. “The successful implementation meant there would be less supervisors needed at Unique. Bounce-backs were a part of a teething process.”