Eight hundred graduates face losing their qualifications after the training regulator moved against a major private education chain operating in both the vocational and higher education sectors.
The Australian Skills Quality Authority has cancelled the registration of Study Group Australia, whose local subsidiaries include the Australian College of Physical Education, business trainers Martin College and health specialists Endeavour Learning, which have been well regarded in education circles.
Study Group also operates pathway colleges or programs for the University of Sydney, Charles Sturt University, the Australian National University and Flinders University. It offers bridging courses for international and underprepared domestic students, funnelling successful graduates into the second year of university programs.
ASQA has been investigating the group’s involvement in VET FEE-HELP, a now defunct student loan scheme, since April 2015. The program was widely rorted, some colleges luring barely literate students with promises of free iPads, although there is no suggestion that Study Group was rorting the system.
The regulator said it had identified multiple shortcomings in Study Group’s activities under the scheme. They included a low completion rate, misleading recruitment practices, enrolment of unsuitable students, insufficient resourcing and inadequate assessment.
It warned the group that it risked losing its registration last September, before taking action this week.
ASQA has also ordered Study Group to cancel around 800 students’ qualifications or statements of attainment, saying they were not assessed properly. Both decisions apply from February 19.
Study Group Australia managing director Warren Jacobson did not return calls. Public relations representatives SenateSHJ said the group would seek a review of the decisions through the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
In a statement, Study Group rejected ASQA’s findings but said it had already been planning to withdraw from Australia’s vocational education sector to focus exclusively on higher education.
It said it had not accepted any new vocational students since mid-2017 and was teaching out about 1700 remaining ones, including 886 enrolled in courses not offered elsewhere.
“We recognise that the regulator has to act to clean up the sector and remove unscrupulous providers,” a spokesman said.
“But we are disappointed that in making the decision, ASQA relied on isolated historical issues which Study Group has already addressed.” It added that the group’s higher education partnerships were “not impacted by ASQA’s decision”.
ASQA confirmed its move did not affect higher education students.
However the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, which regulates higher education, said it was “seeking information” from the group about any effect on its wider operations.
TEQSA has also been conducting a “compliance assessment” of the group’s higher education activities for a few months, although it declined to specify why. The agency is also reviewing the adequacy of a diploma of business which Study Group provides through its Taylors College arm, and wants to extend to its Flinders pathway college.
ANU said the ASQA decision did not affect students at its pathway college, while Flinders said it was “carefully monitoring the situation and considering its position”.
Brendan Sheehan, honorary fellow with the University of Melbourne’s LH Martin Institute, said reputational damage to the group would be “enormous”, irrespective of any action by TEQSA.
Mr Sheehan said ASQA’s ruling reflected a “total governance failure” at an organisation that had deep links with universities, and had been warned it faced deregistration.