In a troubled economy that has left thousands of out of work and looking to second careers, Ontario has an obligation to crack down on unregistered private career colleges run by “rogue operators,” the province’s ombudsman said Tuesday.
Andre Marin was investigating Bestech Academy, which operated out of Stoney Creek, Ont., and St. Catharines, Ont., offering gas technician technology courses.
Despite several warnings from the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities that Bestech should not be operating without being registered, president June Ballegeer operated Bestech unregistered for two years, between 2006 and 2008, the report notes.
When such schools fail financially and abruptly close their doors, as Bestech did, students are left in debt with incomplete studies and little recourse, Marin said.
“Registration and program approval are the linchpins of student protection under the Private Career Colleges Act,” he said in his report.
“If a school or program is not approved, then students are out of luck,” and can try pursuing a small claims court action.
Meanwhile, the ministry actually paid – through the Ontario Skills Development Program – for some students to attend, allowing Bestech to “line its pockets with public funds while flouting the law,” Marin said in the report.
“I’m concerned about its systemic failure to enforce the rules governing private colleges – to the point that Bestech’s president told us that she essentially ignored them because so many others were doing the same thing,” Marin said at a press conference.
“The fact is, the ministry has never laid a charge or prosecuted an illegal college.”
The ministry said 23 colleges have closed since new legislation came into effect in 2006, 15 of them regulated, eight unregulated, after “some interaction” with the ministry.
Marin could not estimate the number of illegal colleges in the province, but said it is “significant,” and that Bestech is certainly not alone. The situation takes on an even greater urgency in the economic downturn, he said.
“Thousands of students attend these colleges, and as more and more people are thrown out of work or forced to seek retraining in new fields, their enrolment will only grow,” Marin said.
“We simply cannot allow what happened to Bestech students to happen again.”
The ministry issued repeated warnings to Bestech to bring itself in line with the law, but meanwhile it continued to operate, Marin said.
“The ministry was well aware that Bestech was operating illegally for two years, right under its nose,” he said.
Ballegeer could not be immediately reached for comment.
In his report, Marin said investigators who spoke with Ballegeer said she was “very conscious” of the fact there were other private, unregistered schools operating in the province and breaking the law.
The report says Ballegeer told investigators, “all I am asking for is a level playing field for all players.”
While she knew she was obliged to register Bestech, Ballegeer told investigators that she could not “see the logic” in registering because students would simply choose an unregistered college over her school, the report states.
Speaking at an event in Brighton, Ont., Premier Dalton McGuinty said the government has a responsibility to protect students, whether they choose a public or a private college, but students should look out for themselves, too.
“If you’re buying a car, if you’re buying a fridge, if you’re buying a house or buying a chocolate bar there’s an old legal maxim: caveat emptor. Buyer beware,” McGuinty said.
“So we’ll do what we can, but people who are out there shopping for an education do what they can as well.”
Jim Wilson, the Progressive Conservative critic for training, colleges and universities, said in general the sector is “pretty good.”
“We’ve had problems, which led to new legislation in 2005,” Wilson said.
“Clearly the government has failed to use the new tools they acquired through that legislation to crack down on some of the bad apples, but there are thousands of students that go every day to private training academies and receive an excellent education.”
Marin has given the government 11 recommendations, including issuing public warnings through a government website and developing regulations to enable the Private Career Colleges Act to enforce penalties.
The ministry has accepted all of the recommendations except his call for a compensation scheme for the students, Marin said. He noted many cases in which students lost thousands of dollars.
John Milloy, Ontario’s minister of training, colleges and universities, called it an “unfortunate situation” but all but ruled out compensation.
“Obviously we feel for the students that were involved in Bestech and may have lost money,” Milloy said.
“I don’t think that the government can ask taxpayers to pick up the slack for dishonest companies who are operating outside the law.”
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath accused the government of leaving Bestech students “high and dry” after the province “watched from the sidelines as this illegal career college actively promoted itself,” she said in a statement.
William Roberts, 57, paid $1,750 in tuition to Bestech and complained when he learned it wasn’t accredited by the Technical Standards and Safety Authority. He received a partial refund, but Ballegeer’s cheque bounced, the report says.
Mike Heywood, 31, gave up a part-time job to attend Bestech, paying $2,578 in tuition for a course that had only two students and photocopies instead of textbooks. His classes were repeatedly cancelled without explanation before the school closed its doors for good, just weeks later, Marin states.
Adding insult to injury, Marin said, was that just days after the ministry’s private career colleges compliance unit issued a restraining order against Ballegeer and Bestech collapsed, another branch of the ministry offered Ballegeer a job.
She worked for this ministry for one month, until her involvement with Bestech was discovered and she was suspended with pay. One month after that she was let go.
– The Canadian Press