The director of a private training school has escaped a criminal conviction, but the school has been fined $56,000 over the unapproved enrolment of international students and making false representations online.
But the identities of the man and school remain a secret for now after appeals were lodged in the High Court last Friday.
Last week, Judge Brooke Gibson’s reserved decision was released to the Herald after a sentencing hearing in the Auckland District Court in July.
The director and school, an unregistered private training establishment, pleaded guilty on the morning of trial, March 12 this year, to 33 charges – 16 for the director and 17 for the school – over breaching the Education Act.
The charges, brought by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) in December 2016, were for the unapproved enrolment of international students, making false representations – including in a video – that the establishment had consent to assess against certain unit standards.
One example saw the school charge fees for a student enrolled in its dog grooming course for accounting based unit standards.
The school also claimed its courses were approved by NZQA and used the unauthorised usage of protected terms such as “New Zealand” to describe its courses.
Other terms illegally used included “Bachelor of Business”, “NZ Diplomas & Certificates”, and “New Zealand Diploma in Accounting”, while advertisement on the school’s website read “accredited NZ qualifications from $25 per week”.
The school provided online courses and also used websites in Europe and Australia to conduct its business.
“There was a clear false misrepresentation in the material published on the website,” Judge Gibson said in his decision.
“This is not simply a training issue. Anyone reading the website would have been led to believe the [school] was offering an approved training scheme.”
The school’s website also said it allowed students to enrol in courses without requiring details of their New Zealand residency, citizenship or visas.
Court documents, obtained by the Herald, showed in July 2016 a prospective student asked the school if NZQA approved its courses. Replying in an online chat a school employee said “many courses are NZQA approved” despite none of the courses offered having approval.
The school’s breaches further included enrolling at least 34 students into its small business accounting course and offered the educational business’ unit standards without the permission of NZQA.
The website advertised the course with the phrase: “[Associated educational business] is the Registered, Accredited, and Approved provider and is responsible for the delivery of the Unit Standards within this course. There is a $200 admin fee to process your NZQA credits.”
Court documents also show NZQA met with the director after it became aware the school was enrolling international students in September 2015.
At the meetings, NZQA told the director of the legal requirements.
In January 2016, NZQA again wrote to the school requesting it immediately stop enrolling international students and amend its website.
The school replied on May 4, through its lawyers, saying it would not enrol international students but was unaware of any current international students in its course.
The school also told NZQA it had “no ability” to provide a list of former international students.
A few days later NZQA responded with its lawyers and said the school’s website was still allowing international students to enrol.
Finally, the school then made changes to its site.
Then in June 2016 the director told NZQA five international students and a student on a visitor’s visa had enrolled.
In an affidavit, a senior tutor at the school said in mid-2016 the school was beginning to develop and “implement new processes for international student enrolments, but these were not fully completed at the time of the NZQA visit” resulting in “some of the international students slipping through the cracks”.
Six months later the school wrote to two of the students to say their enrolment had been cancelled immediately and their fees returned.
The students, including an English woman, two Russians, a South African, an Italian, and Japanese citizen, paid fees ranging from $149 to $2450.
Judge Gibson said the director’s “culpability is essentially based on his carelessness”.
“Certainly they pleaded guilty to false representations but a number of the false representations were, I accept, caused by muddlement, error, poorly trained staff and trying to control and oversee a business that grew rapidly.”
He convicted the company on each charge and fined it $56,000, while also ordering it to pay court costs of $2210.
While discharging the director without conviction, Judge Gibson ordered him to pay $24,000 towards the costs NZQA.
The judge said the consequences of conviction for the man, who travels abroad for work, would “be out of proportion to the gravity of the offending”.
NZQA is appealing the decision to discharge the director without a conviction.
An application for permanent name suppression for both the director and school was also refused by Judge Gibson, despite the director arguing the school would see a 35 per cent to 40 per cent drop in revenue if the names were published.
The director and the school are appealing the decision to not keep the names secret.