market forces on the loose in the disability sector - economic ideology clashing with morality

Private colleges signing intellectually disabled students despite capacity to repay debts

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Private colleges are signing up vulnerable people with intellectual disabilities for expensive government training loans.

Their high needs also mean that they're unlikely to finish and earn enough money to re-pay the debt.

It comes after the ABC reported last week that some recruiters and colleges had been going door-to-door in public housing areas to boost enrolments.

Claire Aird reports.

REBECCA WARFIELD: It was unethical and it was really callous in the way that they didn't care about me as a person. It was just that they saw me walk in the door and I was $40,000 to them.

CLAIRE AIRD: Single mum Rebecca Warfield hasn't had an easy life. She's trying hard to improve it through education but struggles with dyslexia.

REBECCA WARFIELD: It's not my strong point to sit down and read paperwork. I find paperwork really frightening.

CLAIRE AIRD: A private Sydney college signed Rebecca up to a hairdressing course even though she found it difficult to read the contract. When she realised she was heavily in debt and tried to pull out, the college ignored her phone calls.

REBECCA WARFIELD: I was basically told from the college that it was tough luck, that I should have known better, that I was as old enough to understand what I was doing. 

CLAIRE AIRD: Legal Aid intervened and, after more than a year, Rebecca's debt's been cancelled. But others haven't been so lucky.

JACQUI WHITEHEAD: He now has an $18,000 debt and you're telling me there's no hope for him to finish the course?

CLAIRE AIRD: In South Australia, Jacqui Whitehead's son Lukus has autism and intellectual disability.

JACQUI WHITEHEAD: It's like a little kid functioning. He doesn't have the ability to function like an adult and he can't make decisions on his own.

CLAIRE AIRD: Aspire College stopped Lukas on his way into Centrelink one day and enrolled him in a business management course with the promise of a free computer.

JACQUI WHITEHEAD: I wanted the laptop to make games and stuff - like, you've got Oracle here.

CLAIRE AIRD: Lukus couldn't do the course work. But instead of helping him out of it, Aspire sold him another diploma.

I'm heartbroken that he's got a debt. I'm heartbroken that he owes $18,000. The Government needs to realise that they're handing money to these colleges and the kids aren't getting anything out of it.

And the Government's not getting their money back either because these kids aren't going to be able to pay for the debt.

CLAIRE AIRD: Government VET FEE-HELP loans for training were introduced in 2009. The scheme has roughly doubled in size annually, costing $770 million so far this year.

The Government pays colleges for the training and students start repaying the loan once they earn more than $53,000.

MAXINE SHARKEE: You're selling a bright new future to an unemployed young person, giving them hope that somewhere down the track they're going to have a great job. You're selling them a lie because they don't have the capacity to undertake that job. So, they'll never get that diploma, so they'll never get that job. But they'll always have that debt.

CLAIRE AIRD: Maxine Sharkee is the New South Wales Teachers Federation training spokeswoman and advises the New South Wales Government on disability education.

She's had increasing reports of students with disabilities being signed up to courses beyond their means and their capabilities.

MAXINE SHARKEE: Intellectual disabilities, hearing disabilities, physical disabilities being signed up to courses which we believe, and many teachers believe, they would never have the capacity to complete. 

ELIZABETH JACKSON: And that's Maxine Sharkee from the New South Wales Teachers Federation. Claire Aird with that report.