University faces class action over unaccredited course

Nineteen students who graduated from a business and commerce degree at James Cook University (JCU) in Australia are taking class action against the university after discovering the degree they completed was not accredited.

In 2019, JCU advertised a financial adviser major with a double major in accounting and financial management at its Townsville campus in Far North Queensland which it said were accredited courses.

The students said they were set back thousands of dollars and had their careers interrupted when they discovered that the course in financial management they completed would not help to advance their careers because it was not accredited with Australian educational authorities.

One of the students, Lachlan Keevers, said that in 2018 he was approached by JCU members of staff who said they were introducing a financial advising major.

“Various promotional materials were distributed to students via academic staff stating that the course was accredited, influencing enrolments in the major in financial advising,” said Duke Myrteza, partner at Australian Law Partners, who is representing the students.

Lack of accreditation

Asked how he discovered the lack of accreditation, Keevers told University World News: “We found out in late 2020 that the course wasn’t accredited when a student who was nearing the completion of their degree reached out to the governing body of the financial advising industry and they informed the student that the degree was not fully accredited, and that they had no knowledge of it ever being accredited with them.”

The governing body is the Financial Adviser Standards and Ethics Authority (FASEA).

“When the student told JCU about it, the university acknowledged that it had in fact not received accreditation,” said Keevers, who said he has wasted roughly AU$10,000 (US$6,700) in fees and other expenses related to the course he completed in 2021. “When we asked for [financial] compensation, the university would not entertain the idea,” he said.

The course was later given accreditation, but not until July 2022.

Myrteza told University World News he believed the university was in breach of contract under the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency Act of 2011 which states that “professional accreditation of a course of study is required for graduates to be eligible to practise” and further requires that “the course of study is accredited and continues to be accredited by the relevant professional body”.

“We wrote to JCU on 24 November 2022 and they have yet to formally respond to the allegations made against them on behalf of 19 students for whom we act,” said Myrteza.

An alternative diploma

When JCU was approached by University World News, Richard Davis, head of media and communications, said that JCU was in regular contact with affected students and graduates throughout the accreditation process, providing them with updates on the matter.

“The university offered all affected graduates the opportunity to obtain additional and higher qualifications at JCU’s expense. JCU arranged for students to participate in a Graduate Diploma in Financial Planning with Deakin University,” he said, adding that “JCU met the tuition fees for students who took up this option”.

However, this was not an attractive option for Keevers. “This offer was unacceptable due to the fact that I had already sat these subjects. I have already taken the time away from work to study and submit assessment pieces for this exact course. I did not feel, even as a gesture of goodwill, that this was a viable option,” he told University World News.

Keevers said JCU negotiated with Deakin University that any students who came into the course under the JCU arrangement would only be required to sit four subjects out of eight, as they would get credit for the other four from the JCU course already completed.

Lost job opportunities

“Though the course is now accredited, that offers little comfort to those who missed out,” argued Myrteza, pointing out that some have missed out on “significant job opportunities”.

One such student is Blade Stark who said on Channel 9’s ‘A Current Affair’ programme that his dream of starting his career as a financial planner was shattered because JCU could not sort out the accreditation issue before he graduated.

“I had a job lined up,” he told Channel 9. “I ultimately lost my job because of this accreditation issue with JCU.”

Said Myrteza: “Obviously students wouldn’t expect a university to promote a course for which it had not received accreditation as there is a certain level of trust and confidence between a university student and the university.”

When asked how the class action could help the students involved, Myrteza explained that students have a number of remedies under law, including breaches of the Australian Consumer Law for conduct that was misleading and deceptive, or that was likely to mislead and deceive, and breach of contract and negligence if the university has breached its contract with students or breached its duty of care to the students who entrusted the university to only offer courses that are accredited.

“If the claim is successful, then students stand to be compensated for their losses,” he said. “The losses sought to include lost opportunities to earn income as a financial planner, damages for disappointment and distress, interest and legal costs.”