Dodgy marketing of college courses

Over the last six months I’ve spent time on the phone with dodgy salespeople – I even had someone visit my home – to try to uncover which training college was at the bottom of misleading telemarketing calls.

The marketing of college courses is out of control and will remain so, despite some attempts at stricter guidelines and obligations on colleges to rein in their sales agents.

The industry, and government, may suggest we wait to see if recent initiatives improve the conduct of sales agents work.  However, I believe we will continue to see significant problems until all telemarketing and door-to-door selling of courses is banned, based on:

  • Sales agent problems in other industries
  • My recent experience with telemarketers selling online courses
  • The difficulty involved in monitoring the conduct of a large number of agents and enforcing current obligations on colleges.

Sales agent problems in other industries

Consumer organisations have received consumer complaints for many years arising from high pressure selling in the consumer’s home (including door-to-door sales) and telemarketing.  Reasons for high levels of complaints in these areas include:

  • The use of psychological selling techniques that can have more impact once the consumer has ‘invited’ the salesperson into their home
  • The consumer is ‘confronted’ with a product they have not had time to properly consider (or to shop around other suppliers);
  • Commission driven salespeople pressure the consumer to sign up immediately;
  • Lack of the ability of businesses to monitor and control the conduct of commission driven agents, often employed by a separate marketing business. While businesses have legal responsibility for the conduct of their agents, they are often able to escape significant penalty by claiming that the poor conduct is not their fault, and is due to a ‘rogue agent’ or poor training.

In the worst cases businesses sell a product or service that is itself, confusing or overpriced, and the method of selling just adds to the consumer problems.  However, even when used in relation to a legitimate product there are problems.

After years of complaints, the electricity industry in Victoria established a special service, “Sales Assured” to monitor sales agent conduct through complaints and data from the electricity businesses.  However, in the end legal cases brought by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and bad publicity forced most electricity providers to stop using door-to-door selling.

My ‘consumer’ experience

This year I have received three separate tele-marketing calls urging me to sign up for a college course.  In each case I was receptive and invited follow up contact, so all together there were three separate series of contacts.

The first caller said he was offering me a course paid for by the Australian Government and I would get a free laptop.  He mentioned the Australian Vocational Learning Institute (AVLI).  When I had a visit from the salesperson, that person mentioned AVLI as well.   However, I wasn’t able to confirm the name of the individual or the sales agency and I had no proof that the agent was a representative of AVLI.  I complained to the Do Not Call Register about the telemarketing call, but they were unable to link AVLI with the contact.  AVLI told me they couldn’t say whether an individual was representing them without the name of the broker company.

I received a second telemarketing call about six months later.  The caller mentioned courses paid for by the Australian Government.  When I asked “who are you” I was told I could find their website by searching for “Vet Fee Help”.

The follow up caller (probably from within Australia) said he was calling from “Plan Ed”, however after a long discussion about courses this went no further.

The third telemarketing call (again I believe from overseas) also represented that she was calling from “Vet Fee Help” but, when I said I thought they had called me before, she said they hadn’t.  I agreed to further contact in relation to this.

The follow up caller said he was “Edward” calling from “Future Education Victoria”.  When I asked for the name of the college offering the course he said “Australian Vocational Learning Institute” and “Service Skills Academy” (SSA).

I received a second follow-up call from Frank who referred to the previous calls but identified himself as calling from “Australian Learning”.  He suggested a course for me which was to be provided by the SSA.  He wanted a copy of my passport to “show that you are an Australian citizen” and therefore “eligible”.

Monitoring and enforcing the current obligations on colleges 

Despite many phone calls, at this stage I had no way of proving who was calling me – or whether they were agents of a college and if so, which college.  I suspect that all the calls were made by the same business, but I don’t have concrete evidence of that.

It’s not surprising that a college named by a marketer would want proof that the marketer was actually their agent.  In fact, some marketers appear to be naming colleges they have no relationship with (see below). However, I just received an email from Frank who I’d been speaking to from “Australian Learning”.  His email address was that of an agent listed on both AVLI and SSA’s websites, “Trion Services”.  The sole director and secretary of Trion Services is Yaqub Ali Sangray (based on an ASIC Search).

I was only able to confirm the email address once I had sent (as requested) a copy of my passport.  (Yes, stupid perhaps, but I wasn’t going to get to the bottom of this until I did!).  Unless Frank hacked into the sales agency’s computer system (and of course that is not impossible) it appears that an approved agent of AVLI and SSA is representing (possibly through its own overseas agent) it is calling from “Vet Fee Help”, and using various names that are not the agent’s actual name and failing to identify the colleges it sells for – unless specifically asked.

So, where will formal complaints get to?  A ‘rogue agent’ who needs more training perhaps –  or the colleges may stop using this agent (until it re-emerges under a different guise) – and how likely is it that it is just this one marketing firm that is a problem?

The point is, it is difficult (and I assume resource intensive) to police this.  How do colleges monitor what their agents are doing, and how do they monitor what their agents’ agents (such as overseas call centres) are doing?

Relying on receiving complaints to investigate is useless.  Even if an agent identifies a particular college, that college can deny (sometimes correctly) that it is their agent.  It has taken me hours of phone calls and note-taking to put this picture together and be reasonably confident about the identify of the agent.  Are others going to do this? Is any student who was initially “cold called” likely to remember the details of the initial conversations?

It’s all a bad mix – difficult to catch, difficult to prove a link to a particular college, and I suspect that even if penalties were applied, these would be less than the profits generated by the sales agents.

College course selling “scams”?

I am aware that some colleges (not those named here) claim that they are the victim of a “scam” involving telemarketers offering their courses and then obtaining personal details of the ‘victim’.

I don’t doubt that those colleges’ names have been used without permission.    However, my experience with this one sales agency suggests that these may not be ‘’scams’ as we usually know them.  It is very possible that the ‘scammers’ are agents selling college courses for other colleges – giving misleading information about who they are.  It was easy for my callers to identify themselves using a number of names such as “Future Education Victoria”, “Australian Learning” and “Plan Ed”.  I don’t believe these are names of other colleges, but it would be quite easy for sales agents to use names of better known colleges in their spiel.

If the industry is concerned about ‘scams’ it may do best to first examine the marketing practices of others in their own industry.  It is very possible that these ‘scams’ are closer to home than they think.

Relevant links 

7.30 Report (ABC) covered unethical door-to-door marketing of courses

Students being deceived by private training colleges, ABC News

National Training Complaints Hotline (Government website)

Appalling Flaws in VET Subsidy Scheme (The Age) 15/9/15

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