An unregistered, illegal private career college operated in plain sight of the Ontario government for nearly two years – bilking students for thousands of dollars in tuition without providing them proper training – yet the college was not stopped or shut down, Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin said this morning.
In a special report, Marin said Bestech Academy, a small private career college that offered gas technician training in Stoney Creek and St. Catharines, "was allowed to line its pockets with public funds while flouting the law". Marin used this case as an example of the ministry of training, colleges and universities failure to effectively police Ontario’s 425 private career colleges – a booming industry that is seeing an influx of laid off workers in need of retraining.
Not only did the college operate and advertise itself as a "registered" institution, ministry officials repeatedly told Bestech it must apply for registration but Bestech never did and the ministry never laid a charge against them.
"We found the ministry’s handling of Bestech Academy was abjectly inept," he said at a Queen’s Park press conference.
Calling it a complete "lack of enforcement" Marin pointed out that the ministry actually even subsidized the tuition of seven students, spending upwards of $60,000 to send the mature students for retraining at Bestech. The government has the enforcement power to act swiftly to police career colleges but they fail to do so, said Marin. "The tools are there," he said. "This is a classic case of government mismanagement."
The college, which was founded in 2006 and had an estimated 174 total students, abruptly shut its doors in October, 2008, leaving students in a lurch. The president of Bestech was June Ballegeer. Marin’s report states Ballegeer was familiar with the fuel industry and that she had worked for the Technical Standards and Safety Authority.
Ironically, after Bestech shut down in October, 2008, Ballegeer was hired by the ministry on Nov. 7, the report noted. After a former student’s story was published in the Hamilton Spectator and the student complained to Marin, Ballegeer left the ministry in January.
"Bestech wasn’t shut down by the ministry, Bestech went belly up as its CEO became a refugee at the ministry of training, colleges and universities," Marin said.
Marin made 11 recommendations to the ministry including issuing public warnings through a website "buyer beware" list and to post notices at illegal private colleges when they are a risk to student consumers and to conduct a review of its private career college operations.
All Marin’s recommendations will be adopted by the ministry, Marin said, except one – compensating the students who lost money.
"They have a moral obligation to fess up … and show some empathy to act as if they care," Marin said.