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BusinessNovember 24, 2017

Off course: the pricey private education which left its students indebted and fuming

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Unlicensed course materials and substandard teaching at a private tertiary institution connected to New Zealand’s education royalty have left students indebted and fuming. Don Rowe investigates.

Take a look up any side street in any main city in New Zealand and you’ll find one: the ‘International College of This’, the ‘New Zealand National Academy of That’, tiny privately-owned tertiary institutions with ostentatious names, seemingly populated exclusively by foreign students. Darlings of the education-export economy, but unlikely to trouble any reputable academic rankings.

As New Zealand barrelled towards the election earlier this year, however, the Labour Party revealed a key component of their immigration reform was slashing the number of foreign students accepted into ‘low-value’ courses at private training establishments. These institutions, a number already under scrutiny by the NZQA, made prime targets for an opposition playing to a public increasingly concerned about the strain on infrastructure caused by mass immigration.

But it turns out it’s not only foreign students getting a bum deal.

The Yoobee School of Design is a tertiary institution housed on the fourth floor of the towering College of Law building in central Auckland. For 10 months across 2015/16, Shanna Kingston was a student there in the Diploma of Web Development course. After four years in administration she wanted a change, but wasn’t in a position to study for an undergraduate degree. Having left school at 16, Kingston was unfamiliar with the finer workings of the tertiary sector. But still – something felt wrong before the end of the first week.

“The first warning sign was when we were learning HTML,” she says. They were working on anchor links, a rudimentary website code that connects users to a particular part of a page. “One of my classmates said, ‘I’m not doing this right, because it’s not working’, and our tutor Farooq was like, ‘Oh, I can’t work it out, I can’t work it out’. I thought, ‘Fuck, this is like day one stuff’.”

“Later on there would be a bug in someone’s code and the tutor would be like, ‘I don’t know how to fix this’ and so I’d Google it, or someone else would, and he’d be like ‘oh yeah, good job!’ It was like, how the fuck are people who literally learned this yesterday telling you how to fix a bug in your code? This is crazy.”

A screengrab from a Yoobee promo video.

Her experiences are part of a disturbing episode which left a group of students stranded under large loans, with neither Yoobee nor NZQA able to provide satisfactory recompense. It’s a bleak window into exactly what it is we’re selling to a vast number of young people from both here and overseas. Education is a giant industry in New Zealand: our fourth biggest export earner, behind tourism, dairy and meat. Almost 120,000 foreign students pay more than $1 billion a year in fees to institutions that support around 30,000 jobs, according to Education New Zealand and Immigration NZ.

Almost half of these students study at private training establishments (PTEs), which fall outside the mainstream of large universities and polytechnics. But are all PTEs focused on education provision as a pathway to a better life for their students?

In January this year the NZQA deregistered the Aotearoa Tertiary Institute (ATI), a PTE with 200 foreign students enrolled, for breaking rules over staff competence and student attendance and achievement. In May, they shut down Linguis International Institute for widespread plagiarism, overcrowding and non-compliance with NZQA rules. In early July the NZ Herald reported that seven more training providers have been ordered to pay back more than $28 million in taxpayer funding over the past three years. The International College of Auckland is currently under investigation by both Immigration NZ and the NZQA “for issuing receipts containing false or misleading information” and collecting fees before students began to study.

ACG has positioned itself as a company above such behaviour. The largest independent education provider in New Zealand, ACG Education began life as Senior College, a pre-university private college in Auckland city. Founded in 1995 by former All Black and headmaster of Auckland Grammar Sir John Graham, alongside educator Dawn Jones CNZM, ACG underwent a rapid expansion in the following decade, opening 50 campuses across three countries and ten cities, now boasting a total enrolment of more than 17,000 students. Their reputation has been built on results, with ACG-affiliated schools routinely placing near the top of the Metro Best Schools issues.

In 2014 ACG bought Yoobee for $13.3 million,  and a year later the ACG group was acquired for $530 million by Australia’s Pacific Equity Partners.

But ACG’s foray into tertiary education has shown they’re not immune to some of the controversies facing other institutions in the sector. David Perry (his name has been changed due to a subsequent settlement) was enrolled in the same course as Kingston and had similar concerns to Kingston about the quality of the instruction in the course taught by Farooq Vighio. He met with campus academic manager Tracy Lee, whose online job description says she’s responsible for “maintaining academic excellence and creating an inspiring, fun place to work and study”. Perry says Lee told him his concerns were unfounded, and he would be ineligible for a refund under Yoobee policy. Perry says it felt like an attempt at intimidation.

“She just said ‘Well, that’s your opinion, you should just go back to class’, and I said, ‘Well, no, that’s not happening, you need to do something about it because I can’t understand this guy.’ She basically said, ‘Well, that’s just your opinion, and you’re not going to get your money back because you’ve gone past the eight day withdrawal date’.”

Lee did not respond to requests for comment from The Spinoff. However, Yoobee CEO Adam Berry offered a “different perspective” on Lee’s professional behaviour: “I see her as somebody who is incredibly passionate about students and outcomes and wanting to do the right thing, so I just feel that maybe through this whole process it’s just got to a point where no one is able to talk and listen [and] get to an agreeable resolution for those students.”

At least four students spoken to for this story dispute that account. “It was clearly intimidation,” says one, Shantanu Iyer, who had also dealt with Lee.

Perry left the class, teaching himself the necessary skills to pass Yoobee’s assessments, and later started a web design business of his own. He wanted a refund, but Yoobee stood by their eight-day withdrawal policy. Perry wrote it off for the time being as a lost cause.

Kingston recounts the story of another student at Yoobee, an Indian software programmer who had taken up the course at considerable expense in order to have a local qualification.  “He was just devastated,” says Kingston. “He said to me, ‘Farooq is talking out of his ass. I know how to do this stuff, because I’m a software programmer, and if anyone had the level of experience that Farooq says he has, he would too’.”

As the class realised they would need to take the task on themselves, Kingston subscribed to, a reputable online education resource with a 20-year history across a range of creative fields. But the materials were suspiciously familiar.

“I bought the subscription and I thought ‘Wait, these are all the same course materials, he hasn’t even fucking changed a thing! All he’s done is remove any reference to’.”

Kingston estimates around two-thirds of the teaching was recycled from, which charges $240 a year for its online materials – a stark contrast to the $6737 Yoobee course fee. Tertiary institutions have considerable overheads, of course, but in this case the tutor had not only apparently recycled an alternative provider’s course materials but also, according to his former students, he didn’t know how to teach it in the first place.

Berry told The Spinoff the use of the materials in class was a simple misunderstanding of the rights Yoobee holds to Lynda, which are for “personal tutoring, personal development” rather than teaching. “So the mistake that he made was actually showing that to the class.”

Screenshots seen by the Spinoff show that more than 30 Lynda tutorial files were made available to students in the class.

Illustration: Toby Morris

A group of fellow students were directed to the head of department after Lee refused a meeting, Kingston says. “She literally would not come out of her office.”

Again, however, attempts to secure a refund were rebuffed, and the students were instead offered additional tutoring. “I was like, ‘I don’t want any extra tutoring, this is fucking ridiculous’,” says Kingston.

Kingston did not stop there. She met with Derek Martin, Auckland Central senior regional manager for ACG Tertiary & Careers Group. In an email, Martin offered to undertake an internal investigation into the use of unlicensed teaching materials and investigate the tutor’s capabilities. He also reiterated the offer of extra tutoring.

Kingston was not impressed.

“It was like when the police get caught out and they say, ‘Oh look, we’ve investigated ourselves, and it’s fine, nothing is wrong.’ It’s exactly like that,” she says. “So I said, ‘Look man, I don’t care, I don’t have the time and I need to find a job. I’ve got no money’… I was 23 at that point and I was just like, ‘Look I don’t want to stay here for as long as that takes’.”

At least $7000 in debt and with 10 months down the drain, Kingston was in no mood to return to Yoobee, and decided to take her complaints to the NZQA. She wanted a refund and a public apology. NZQA denied them both.

“Based on the information available NZQA found that no further action was required,” deputy chief executive for quality assurance Dr Grant Klinkum said in a statement to The Spinoff.

NZQA declined to uphold the complaint on the grounds that Yoobee’s offer of extra tuition and an internal investigation were considered sufficient, leaving Kingston with the impression that she had no case on which to pursue legal action at the Disputes Tribunal.

“I looked through the guidelines as to what constitutes a complaint and how to format it according to what they need to hear, and now I just don’t know what it would take for them to go to Yoobee and say ‘We want to see what you’re teaching, we want to talk to the students, we want to look at your course files’. I actually don’t know what it would take.”

Kingston was crushed – but not surprised. It seemed to her like the logical outcome of going against what is a large and lucrative operation in an established system.

“I just felt like, ‘of course, of fucking course’,” she says. “It’s one of those things you just accept because so many of these things slip through the cracks and I just don’t have much faith in our system. I don’t have faith that they really care.”

Unknown to Kingston, Perry had also been stewing on the situation. He decided to pursue legal action of his own, on the basis that he was owed a refund. He also found it difficult to believe that Yoobee had unknowingly hired such an poor quality tutor.

Vighio’s CV, a copy of which as been obtained by The Spinoff, offers little to suggest he is qualified for such a role, showing scant experience in web design or teaching in general. It is riddled with typos and ambiguities about where exactly he has worked. Several of the websites listed on the CV do not exist.

Yoobee CEO Adam Berry disputes the suggestion that Vighio was unequipped for the role. He told The Spinoff Vighio was qualified on account of his time as a software engineer.

Tim Coomer, another student, believes Vighio was something of a cowboy.

“Farooq was clearly a charlatan. It was very clear that he didn’t know what he was doing.”

After several hearings at the Disputes Tribunal, Perry’s complaints were ultimately dismissed. Rather than give up, however, he went back to his old classmates to search for more evidence, convinced he was in the right and upset by what he considered to be a scam.

“They’re trying to make money out of people that couldn’t fight back,” he says. “If you’ve got 16 students paying $7000 plus their government subsidies, it’s looking in the range of $200,000 plus – essentially in just one class, and they’re just trying to cut corners by hiring people who are cheap.”

In May, after speaking with Kingston and several other classmates, Perry applied to the Disputes Tribunal for a rehearing on the basis of new evidence. That new evidence included analysis of the CV and formal statements provided by other students.

“Now I have an overkill of evidence and [the tribunal] have realised they’d made a big mistake so they’ve swapped out the adjudicator and put in a new one – they’re starting fresh. This will be the sixth time I’ve been in there,” Perry said.

Almost two months from that conversation, however, Perry went silent. Late one Sunday night I received an email from another student suggesting he had settled with Yoobee and was thus gagged from speaking to the media. But other students emerged with stories of their own.

Matt Sweetman studied the web development course in the year prior to Perry and Kingston. His experiences were strikingly similar: substandard teaching in broken English, questionable course materials and classmates who by his estimation should never have been accepted into the diploma to begin with. He, too, says that complaints were met with defensiveness and aggression.

“Our class started off with around 15 students and ended up with four,” he continued. “People just stopped showing up because they weren’t learning anything. I walked out of there with a diploma but if I had have gone into any job interview like that, I would have been being completely dishonest about what I could do.”

Sweetman and a group of former classmates are in the process of organising legal action of their own, saying the principle alone is enough to make it worthwhile. “It’s not just about the money, it’s about the fact that they’re ripping people off. These people are trying to change their lives and Yoobee is taking advantage.”

Illustration: Toby Morris

I asked CEO Adam Berry if the experiences of the students I had spoken with was consistent with the ACG reputation, or with the thousands of dollars of debt they incurred covering course fees and living costs during their time at Yoobee.

“I don’t think it’s consistent with the Yoobee reputation let alone the ACG reputation. I think it’s a disappointment for me, and it would be a disappointment for the institute, if any student left feeling aggrieved or disappointed in the experience that they had. So that’s our position on that,” he said.

“As part of our response to the original concerns we did offer extra tutoring to support the students, to help them, but nobody took Yoobee up on it.”

But these weren’t students falling behind on account of their own shortcomings. Given that at least one student has settled with Yoobee, wouldn’t the rest deserve compensation? I put it to Berry that they had the same in-class experience; all that is different is their ability to pursue legal action.  

“I don’t even know how many students we’re talking about or who you’re talking about, but again I would imagine that they would have all had the opportunity to engage and go through this process with us as an organisation. But you know, I’m happy to talk to any students that have left the college and felt that they had a bad experience.”

Farooq Vighio left Yoobee and the education industry as a whole at the conclusion of the Diploma of Web Development course, which is no longer offered at Yoobee. After one year at a Hamilton software firm Vighio moved on again. Sustained efforts to contact him in New Zealand were unsuccessful.

It could be that the Vighio episode is an isolated case of bad luck for the institution as well as the students. But for Shanna Kingston, now living in Australia, the experience at ACG’s Yoobee is symptomatic of a larger problem in which education is looked at as an industry and not a pathway.

“I just feel so bad because so many people must have been failed by the NZQA and wasted their money and their time with Yoobee and other institutions like it. There’s not enough oversight and people are spending so much money.

“I’m gonna make a generalisation here, but the sort of people that go to Yoobee aren’t usually well-off,” she says. “Yoobee is one of those places that you go when a three year degree sounds like too much, or you can’t do that for three years because you have family to support and your family can’t support you… It’s very sad.”

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