A fitness course that has been heavily promoted by Biggest Loser star Steve "Commando" Willis has been criticised for having sub-standard facilities, misleading students and not being recognised by key players in the fitness industry as a valid qualification.
The Sage Institute of Fitness publicised its "cutting edge" diploma of fitness coaching on Channel Ten's hit show the Biggest Loser last year, despite having no dedicated gym facilities and asking students to help install their own classroom walls in empty office suites while charging them $18,750 a year in student fees.
Sage Institute of Fitness: 'Cutting edge' diploma
Sculpture by the Sea washes away
The vocational education disaster
Could you do HSC maths?
Skytrain contractors try to block embarrassing photos
Byron Bay surfer bitten by shark
Sleep expert warns of student crisis
The Fuel Check petrol price website
Sage Institute of Fitness: 'Cutting edge' diploma
Biggest Loser star Steve "Commando" Willis has been promoting the diploma across the city, while students have complained of a lack of basic facilities.
Fairfax Media can reveal that peak body Service Skills Australia never endorsed the course and one of Australia's largest gym chains Fitness First will not take the course as a stand-alone credential for its personal trainers.
The course has been funded through thousands of dollars in tuition fees loaned to students by the federal government through the scandal plagued VET-FEE HELP scheme, which is expected to blow out to $4 billion in taxpayer debt this year.
The government body responsible for monitoring the private college sector, the Australian Skills and Quality Authority, has issued the Sage Institute of Fitness with a show-cause notice stating an intention to cancel the accreditation of the course this year.
An ASQA spokesman said the regulator determined the course no-longer complied with the standards set by ASQA after it found the diploma duplicated parts of the fitness training package. The decision is currently under review.
Willis, known throughout the industry as "Commando Steve" is the college's "brand ambassador".
The former special forces officer can be seen on advertising billboards across Sydney describing the course as "the best qualification I have found, designed by the industry, for the industry". The college also sponsors Willis' charity events and uses The Biggest Loser star as a motivational speaker.
Willis' manager Lisa Sullivan said that any sponsorships were at Sage's discretion and were not related or determined by Willis.
Concerns were first raised about the quality of the course by former staff member Shane Harvey last year, who said that the course did not even have basic equipment or accurate learning materials and that students were asked to help build their own classrooms with gyprock walls.
"It was terrible. They didn't even have dumbbells, which is a basic thing any person would have," he told the ABC in November. "It was just make something up and teach them how to train without equipment. Don't charge them a fortune and tell them they get a world-class gym and then don't provide any equipment," he said.
Occupational health and safety reports seen by Fairfax Media also reveal students' safety concerns about the college's former Sussex Street campus.
One report said that no first aid kits were immediately available, staff and students were unaware of evacuation procedures, and the office had missing roof panels with exposed wires.
Students have told Fairfax Media the college promised graduates would be able to set nutrition plans, but frustrated students have written to the company after they found out that the nutrition qualification would only enable them to assist dieticians and work in canteens, nursing homes or hospital kitchens.
Despite the show-cause notice from ASQA the college continues to advertise the course as "Australia's first and only" fitness coaching diploma.
The course, promoted as "entirely unique" by the college, does not have to abide by the recruitment restrictions placed on its competitors.
When ASQA approved the course last year SAGE students did not have to obtain a certificate III or certificate IV in fitness and a year's work experience before they could enrol in the diploma.
The revised diploma of fitness qualification released by the industry skills council in September subsequently required these prerequisites
The move allowed Sage to enrol hundreds of students straight into publicly funded VET-FEE HELP loans, which are only available to diploma-level courses, not certificate III or IV courses.
While the college continues to expand, the college's owner Robert Hornsey has been embroiled in a legal battle in the NSW Supreme Court with the Australian Institute of Fitness over allegations he set up Sage Institute while he was still a director of the Australian Institute of Fitness in Victoria and Tasmania.
In finding Mr Hornsey had breached his directors duties in setting up the Sage Institute of Fitness in competition with the Australian Institute of Fitness, Supreme Court Justice John Sackar said that he had formed "a most unfavourable view of Mr Hornsey".
"In my view, Mr Hornsey's conduct in setting up and promoting the Sage business was deliberate, for a time covert, and in a number of respects, in my view, quite dishonest," said Justice Sackar in describing him as a person who was deliberately less than forthright and gave intentionally false evidence.
In a statement Mr Hornsey said he would appeal Judge Sackar's ruling and that Sage had an open and honest communication system. He has since shown Fairfax Media a contract Sage has signed with commercial gym Anytime Fitness to allow students to use their facilities, where they are forced to work around paying customers.
"You will always unfortunately encounter staff and students that will be negative, but the overwhelming response from our staff and students nationally is that we provide both a positive working environment and a great, safe place for students to learn," he said.
He said Sage has been working with Fitness Australia on a plan to register its coaching graduates and that workplace health and safety was a shared responsibility, with staff required to log any safety issues for immediate action.
"We believe the real story is taking a look at how the allied health bodies have hijacked the Fitness Industry Training Package and continue to work to dilute the skills and knowledge of the fitness professionals," his spokeswoman said.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that ASQA removed industry requirements for the Diploma of Fitness Coaching . The course owner, Sage, developed the course specifications and presented them to ASQA for accreditation. The story has been updated to reflect this.