Jeanette Steendam received the shock of her life when she tried to lodge her tax return.
The 58-year-old Wodonga woman had just discovered she owed the federal government $36,000 for a tertiary qualification she’d never received. She was also told she had to immediately repay $2000.
Distressed by the numbers that flashed up on her computer screen, Ms Steendam turned off the power.
“I was scared and furious,” she said.
The former vocational student is now one of thousands of people dealing with the consequences of Australia’s biggest education rort: the notorious loan scheme known as VET FEE HELP.
Created by the Coalition and expanded by Labor, the scheme granted private colleges virtually unregulated access to government subsidies for virtually every student they enrolled.
This created a perverse incentive for some colleges to enrol as many people as they could, sometimes luring them with laptops and other incentives to sign up to often substandard online courses.
Ms Steendam — who has taken her fight to the Australian Taxation Office and VET Student Loans Ombudsman — was one of its unsuspecting victims.
“I hold the government accountable,” she told The Age.
Ms Steendam's troubles began in 2015 when she enrolled into a double diploma in community services and counselling at the now-defunct Careers Australia.
She was then working full-time at an employment agency in Albury that helped the jobless find work through a federal government back-to-work scheme.
A Careers Australia representative visited her work and started signing up unemployed people for diplomas.
Although Ms Steendam had a full-time job, she was also interested in upskilling. She’d started looking for a new job and thought a diploma would improve her credentials, and she also liked the thought of being able to study at her own pace.
“It doesn't take long for a good salesman to sell something and make it sound really good,” she said.
But three weeks into the double diploma, after completing only two units, Ms Steendam phoned Careers Australia and told them she was pulling out.
Instead of being self-paced, as the salesman had promised, she was receiving daily calls from the training college who were hassling her to submit work. It was becoming too much.
“I told them this is ridiculous,” she said.
Yet, instead of taking her off the books when she quit the course, Careers Australia kept charging her, telling her only after she’d discovered the ongoing debt that it was because she hadn’t withdrawn in writing.
“I cannot believe this company knowingly kept claiming the government funding for me, knowing I wasn't completing the course,” she said. They even “had the audacity to ask me to return the laptop that I never received''.
Figures from the Student Loans Ombudsman show the federal watchdog received 5193 complaints in nine months from people who said they had been ripped off through VET FEE HELP.
The highest proportion of those complaints came from people who, like Ms Steendam, only became aware of their debt when they started earning above the repayment threshold.
As the repayment threshold decreases – from $55,874 to around $45,000 – it’s expected more Australians caught up in the rort will also discover they also owe the government money.
Now pressure is mounting on new Skills and Vocational Education Minister Michaelia Cash to wipe out debts that were issued unethically.
Asked if the Minister would help students who had been ripped off, her spokeswoman said on Saturday: “The Coalition Government is doing work to clean up the mess the previous government left in vocational education with their failed VET FEE-HELP scheme.”
“The VET Student Loans Ombudsman (VSLO) has been established to administer complaints, including complaints about VET FEE HELP debts. The VSLO is separate from the Department of Education and Training and has its own legal powers to investigate and deal with complaints.”
Meanwhile, the VET Student Loans Ombudsman contacted Ms Steendam on Friday morning, after being approached by The Age for comment, informing her that she could apply to the ATO to defer the repayments on her debt while the watchdog continued to investigate the matter.
In a statement issued to The Age on Friday afternoon, a spokesperson for the Ombudsman said it could not discuss the specifics of the case, but confirmed the office was investigating numerous complaints about the now-closed Careers Australia.
“In the interim, the Office and Australian Taxation Office (ATO) have an arrangement where complainants’ compulsory student repayments can be deferred while we investigate their complaint. The complainant is made aware that the deferment is temporary, the debt remains and indexation continues to accrue unless the debt is re-credited or otherwise cancelled,” the spokesperson said.
For Ms Steendam, it’s a welcome reprieve — at least for now.
But the Consumer Action Law Centre predicts more Australians will start coming forward with stories of dodgy training colleges once they discover their debt as the repayment threshold is reduced.
The centre’s Mick Bellairs is urging the federal government to waive VET FEE-HELP debts that were sold unlawfully or unethically, often to vulnerable, low-income people.
“We believe there are many thousands of legacy debts that need to be resolved by the federal government,” he said.
“As soon as you meet that repayment threshold, there’s nothing you can do, you have to start paying back that debt.”