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Marketing practices employed by almost half of Australia's 4,900-odd training colleges could jeopardize their government approval to operate, a new report suggests.

A review of about one-tenth of college websites, conducted by the national vocational training regulator, has found that 45 percent may be in breach of registration standards.

“These potential breaches range from relatively minor concerns that can and should be rectified quickly and easily, to more serious breaches that could involve major sanctions including loss of registration,” says the report by the Australian Skills Quality Authority.

The federal agency scrutinized the websites of 421 registered training organizations and 59 other organizations, mostly domestic training agents. It found over half were promoting “unrealistically” fast-tracked courses, with some of the claims “simply too good to be true,” according to chief commissioner Chris Robinson.

“There’s no way that people not already very experienced could ever achieve the competencies in some of the times they’re talking about,” he said.

Examples included an advanced diploma -- typically a two-year course -- delivered in just two weeks; a forklift driver’s licensing course that could be completed in two hours; and a dual qualification delivered in eight weeks.

The review found that about one in eight colleges was still promoting superseded courses more than a year after they had been replaced. And one in 12 was involved in “misleading advertising” including guarantees of successful completion and subsequent employment.

The Obama administration has pursued tougher U.S. rules governing possible misrepresentation by vocationally oriented colleges as part of a larger package of "program integrity" rules adopted in 2011, though those regulations have run into legal hurdles. This fall the U.S. government began moving on another front, through its Federal Trade Commission.   

The Australian report suggests that one in six colleges have “machinery” on their websites that allowed them to exceed the limit in collecting prepaid fees from prospective students, while one in five had no details of their refunds policy.

The findings indicate that widespread reporting of dodgy practices in Victoria’s open training market, including absurdly abbreviated courses, may not have curtailed such activities. The reports included advertising of government-funded courses that could be completed in as little as four days, sometimes with cash, overseas accommodation, or iPads offered as added enrollment inducements.

Robinson said many students were “savvy” enough to realize that paying twice as much and spending three times as long could mean a “far better product.”

“But some people will just get on the internet, compare the prices and think that one’s shorter and cheaper; I’ll do that.”

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