UNHAPPY: Former Smart City Vocational College Hervey Bay trainer and assessor Justin Burnham.
UNHAPPY: Former Smart City Vocational College Hervey Bay trainer and assessor Justin Burnham. Valerie Horton

Ex-staffer: Why I had to get away from SmartCity

JUSTIN Burnham says the diplomas being handed out by SmartCity may as well have come off the back of cereal boxes.

The former trainer and assessor at the Hervey Bay campus left after only six months, sickened by the number of unsuitable people being signed up to diplomas and double diplomas.

He assessed many of them as unfit to study, due to a lack of language, numeracy or literacy skills, refusing to pass them through their courses.

"I thought 'this is crazy' because none of the students here are appropriate," Mr Burnham said.

"They're diplomas they got off the back of a Corn Flakes packet. They were just giving them out."

He said he found it near impossible when, only a couple of months after he'd finished at SmartCity, he bumped into two Filipino women he'd assessed as unfit to study due to their language skills, only to learn they were now both brandishing double diplomas.

He wondered how many students had been ushered through their courses since he'd left to boost the college's completion rates.

Mr Burnham estimated 70%-80% of students enrolled "were not up to standard" and unable to successfully complete their studies.

He said it was commonplace to 'double-dip' on any successful diploma graduates by enrolling them for a cut-price second diploma to squeeze more money out of the Federal Government's student loan funding program.

But Mr Burnham said many students were unable to complete their courses and estimated about 100-150 Hervey Bay locals would have debts of at least $12,000 as a result.

The Filipino women were just two of a number he said he'd flagged with his bosses as being unsuitable.

"It was hundreds of them here," Mr Burnham said.

Mr Burnham said high school drop-outs had been targeted at a local skate park while others were signed up only metres from the Centrelink office.

He said he told Hervey Bay team leaders of his concerns with the enrolments within weeks of the campus opening as it became clear the students were unfit to study such courses.

"It started from there and just never stopped," Mr Burnham said.

Mr Burnham started working there in July, 2014, but by December that year he'd resigned, concerned for the futures of the students.

Mr Burnham said indigenous people with poor literacy and computer skills were signed up, even a man with an acquired brain injury with virtually no short-term memory was signed up to a diploma to be studied online.

"Most were Year 8 or 9 drop-outs who had to earn or learn," the 53-year-old Hervey Bay local said.

"They were getting told they didn't have to pay it back, that it was HECS fee.

"They (salespeople) said you'd never have to (pay it back)... and if you do earn that (above $51,500 repayment threshold) it'll come out of your tax."

Mr Burnham said salespeople, known as course advisors, were telling students they were virtually no chance of earning enough to trigger loan repayments, offering them laptops to sign up.

He said students took to exchanging their 'free' laptops for cash at local pawn shops and when he raised issues with former SmartCity director and current CEO Glenn Spong he was reprimanded.

Mr Burnham said he continued to dig his heels in over what he thought were inappropriate enrolments, but his arguments were ignored.

"Their words were 'we don't discriminate against anyone'," he said.

He said he wrote to his local Federal MP Keith Pitt, who forwarded his concerns on to then-Vocational Education and Skills Minister Luke Hartsuyker in December, 2015, who responded advising regulations had been tightened and students could reclaim debts if they felt they'd been misled.

Mr Hartsuyker's letter advised affected students who believe their debts should be waived to contact the Department of Finance to lodge their claim.

If any student believes an uninvited salesperson gave them false or misleading information they should lodge a complaint with the ACCC.

Mr Spong was unavailable to comment.