Victoria

Woman on hunger strike over training college's practices

Birsel Akbulut's stomach growls as she prepares for another rough night's sleep outside a private training college in Broadmeadows.

The singer, who is well known in Melbourne's Turkish community, is staging a hunger strike in an attempt to claw back money for what she believes are victims of the scandal-plagued vocational education sector.

Birsel Akbulut on hunger strike outside a private training college in Broadmeadows.
Birsel Akbulut on hunger strike outside a private training college in Broadmeadows. Photo: Chris Hopkins

In November, Ms Akbulut signed up 61 members of the local Turkish community to a diploma in community services at Keystone College. And now she feels dreadful.

She also enrolled in the course, and was told that a Turkish-speaking teacher would run the class from the private college's Broadmeadows campus.

Birsel Akbulut is protesting on behalf of herself and 61 Turkish students she signed to a community services course.
Birsel Akbulut is protesting on behalf of herself and 61 Turkish students she signed to a community services course. Photo: Chris Hopkins

"I was told they don't have to speak English; we will have a Turkish class, with a Turkish teacher," she said. "We were told we would get a diploma in one year and would then work for our community."

The group was initially provided with a Turkish-speaking teacher but she left two months into the course.

She said the migrants were then told their English was not good enough and they would have to pass a literacy and numeracy test if they wanted to continue.

Unable to pass the test, the students say they have now been left with a VET FEE-HELP debt of almost $19,000 each and no qualifications.

"I have been used and my reputation has been put to the ground," Ms Akbulut said. "We don't want to owe money to the government for something we didn't get."

Ms Akbulut has been living on sugared water and chewing gum since Monday morning and has vowed to continue the hunger strike until Keystone College wipes the students' debts.

"It's a different experience for me. I was sitting here last night, and there was a big rat walking just there," she said, pointing to the ground.

Ms Akbulut said she was approached in August by education broker National Training and Development – which sells courses for Keystone College – and offered a job as an "independent course adviser".

She said she was offered $600 for every student she signed up, and is still owed money.

An audit by the Australian Skills Quality Authority, the national regulator for vocational education and training, previously found that Keystone College was not complying with rules covering the assessment of students before enrolment.

In a report released last year, the regulator said the college had improved its practices to address this issue, but would be monitored.

The federal government has moved to rein in the industry by amending laws and freezing funding to private colleges accessing VET FEE-HELP – a HECS-style loans system for vocational training students – to 2015 levels.

A spokeswoman for Keystone College said the community services course that many Turkish students were enrolled in was being superseded in August and they were concerned some students would not complete it in time.

"We are therefore trying to provide as many opportunities as possible for the students to successfully complete their chosen qualification. One of the options is for the students to withdraw from their current studies and enrol (at no additional cost) into the new qualification."

But she said new government regulations meant that VET FEE-HELP students needed a high school certificate or to complete a government-approved literacy and numeracy test.

"The test is difficult for those applying to study who do not speak English as their first language." She said the college had terminated its contract with NTD and was trying to recruit a new Turkish trainer.