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'Selling an illusion': How a collapsed cooking school in Melbourne failed its international staff and students

Melbourne’s Ad Astra Institute was promoted online with glossy photos of commercial kitchens Source: https://web.archive.org/web/20191121004324/https://chefspencil.com/culinary-schools/ad-astra-institute/

When the Ad Astra cooking school in Melbourne collapsed this year, hundreds of students and staff members were left in debt and disarray. In this five-part story, SBS Portuguese explores why so many people initially trusted the school, and how the illusion came undone.

PART 1 — 'We were all misled': Life as a student at Ad Astra

PART 2 — ‘A serious school can’t talk like that’: The view from afar

PART 3 — 'I saw the student becoming a product’: What it was like selling the school

PART 4 — ‘Australia’s reputation suffers’: The wider impact of Ad Astra's collapse

PART 5 — ‘We didn’t want the school to close’: Ad Astra's founder James Sackl responds

 

'We were all misled': Life as a student at Ad Astra

Ad Astra’s management refutes all claims that the school was mismanaged – you’ll hear from them later in this story.

“When they sold me the idea, I thought it was amazing, but on the very first day of school I saw it was all an illusion,” says Victorio Borges, a former student of Ad Astra, a Melbourne commercial cookery school that went into liquidation leaving students in debt and unsure of their future in Australia.

More than 180 students and staff were attracted to work and study at Ad Astra by the school’s impressive advertising campaign.

The commercial cookery and hospitality school offered some of the most sought after courses for international students: the Diploma of Hospitality Management and Certificates III and IV of Commercial Cookery.

The courses could be bought in a two-year course ‘combo’ for $1,975, saving international students money, time and hopefully assuring them a pathway to employment and residency in Australia.

Ad Astra
Melbourne’s Ad Astra Institute was promoted online with glossy photos of commercial kitchens
https://web.archive.org/web/20191121004324/https://chefspencil.com/culinary-schools/ad-astra-institute/

The promise of guaranteed employment with a ‘partner business’ of the school at the end of the course, was also sold as part of the offering:

“A state-of-the-art campus in Brunswick, a suburb with perhaps the richest culinary history in Melbourne, and 100 on-site kitchens which, when not being trained in, operate as restaurant kitchens for the Institute’s numerous partners where students can find employment after graduation."  reads one of AD Astra's ads, archived here.

Victorio Borges, 25, remembers he was impressed by the school to begin with.

“They told us the school would open a ‘zero-waste’ restaurant, everything would be recyclable, a renowned Italian chef was part of the team of teachers.

The school fees were within Victorio’s means too – an important point for any international student.

Victorio Borges
Victorio Borges: “I believe we were all misled, students, staff and suppliers, which made the process of selling an illusion easier for them. It is easy to sell an illusion.
supplied

“We already spend so much with visa costs that I decided to enrol in the ‘combo’ package and get my Diploma of Hospitality Management in two years. I remember saying to myself, ‘I can truly learn here’.”

Victorio was part of the second class of students to enrol in the school in July 2018.

In his class there were 30 students from Brazil, Italy, Philippines, Vietnam, Japan, all aged between 21 and 30.

All the excitement of attending a purpose-built facility evaporated on the first day of school.

“On the first day, I saw that the dots were not connecting ... There wasn’t a big screen, there were no screens at all, we were looking at the teacher’s notebook. The newly painted walls had square holes, no power plugs. The classes were very theoretical, there were no practical lessons, our days were filled in with online tests on food safety, organizational health and safety, and the state-of-art kitchens were never ready. The famous Italian chef left in the first week. The restaurant school did not even exist.”

ASIC Insolvency note
ASIC Insolvency note

In those first months, Victorio saw students and staff leaving quickly.

“When the renowned chef left, I was in absolute shock. ‘How come? The biggest selling point of the school is leaving?’”

As Victorio had just changed schools having previously studied Leadership Management course in another school and invested all his money on AdAstra, he decided to stay.

“I couldn’t change courses again, especially on a student visa.”

Victorio would end up staying for a year witnessing what he calls the “horror film” that his course turned into right until the school was shut down by Australian Skills Quality Authority (AQSA) and the Department of Home Affairs.

Unrecognizable people at a restaurant cooking meals
The school offered some of the most sought after courses for international students: the Diploma of Hospitality Management and Certificates III and IV of Commercial Cookery.
Getty Images
“When the school’s registration was cancelled I felt happy some action had been taken.”

The students learnt the school’s registration had been cancelled through the Australian government.

Victorio tells SBS Portuguese that the school's managerial team “disappeared” there was no official statement from the school’s director or senior staff to students and employees.

Representatives from Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA), Tuition Protection Service (TPS) and the Department of Home Affairs/Department of Education organised a school assembly with all students and staff. 

“They came on the stage and each talked about one topic, one spoke about the curriculum options, the other about repayments and the third about our visas, they explained that the school went into liquidation, no reasons were given… They said everything was going to be okay and that our visa was safe.”

As AdAstra didn’t provide students’ academic records, Victorio started digitally recording his school marks and assessments.

“The school curriculum system was non-existent and I started collecting this data. Many of the subjects we paid for and classes we attended had no record and we would have to study these again. I think this is the worst part.”

Victorio says that he received repayments only from the classes he enrolled in and that Ad Astra did not deliver, the equivalent of two months of school fees. He didn’t receive repayments for the classes he had attended or any extra enrolment fees. His visa has been extended with charges waived, as the government sees the school closure beyond the student’s control

“I believe we were all misled, students, staff and suppliers, which made the process of selling an illusion easier for them. It is easy to sell an illusion. There was the guy who was selling the school to us, the guy from my exchange agency vouching for the school. I just fell for it. There are many schools that are there just to give you a visa, with no structure whatsoever.”

“I am looking for a new school now, a new chapter. I’m very relieved that it is all over.”

‘A serious school can’t talk like that’: The view from afar

Ad Astra’s management refutes all claims that the school was mismanaged – you’ll hear from them later in this story.

Murilo Araujo Rodrigues was working as Business Development Manager at Le Cordon Bleu Brazil, when after seeing Ad Astra Institute’s innovative proposal, he decided to leave the French culinary and hospitality school and give the Australian cookery school a go.

Murilo Araujo Rodrigues
Murilo Rodrigues: "Those months were really hard to keep going, both financially and emotionally. I had bills to pay, I couldn’t take it anymore and left."
supplied

“They were so innovative; a group of companies that would complement each other, a visionary leader, the sales pitch was attractive," he tells SBS Portuguese. "They were really offering something – that if it was real, would be amazing. I was excited, believed in their idea and joined in.”

Murilo became Ad Astra’s International Business Development Manager for Latin America. His job was to sell Ad Astra’s courses to international student exchange agencies in Brazil and across Latin America, as one of Australia’s fastest growing markets of international students.

He joined the group for nearly two years, from 2018 to early 2019 and was based in Sao Paulo.

“My job was to sell their ‘innovative approach’ to education and sign the international student exchange agencies as partners. The first red flag was the launch of the so-called ‘school restaurant’ – the opening date was always pushed forward.”

Since he was working for the school from Brazil, Murilo was more easily fooled by the image the school projected of itself.

“I started asking for evidence – ‘Send me photos of the new kitchen, the school’s curriculum, the teachers CVs, something concrete.’”

As the school provided very few materials, some of them without Ad Astra’s logo, he grew suspicious.

“My second red flag was the fact that, although it wasn’t written anywhere, we were instructed to sell the promise that the course would lead the student to a work permit, that the course was the entry point for permanent residency, that although there was a limit in the number of hours, the international student could work as a chef for longer hours, and that it was hard for the government to control this. A serious school can’t talk like that.”

Ad Astra
Whiteboard shows how the cookery courses would lead to Permanent Residency
supplied
Murilo told SBS Portuguese that his salary was always paid late, if at all, and accompanied by excuses.

Without information and proof of the school’s facilities, it became harder for Murilo to sell the school to Latin American student agencies.

“Their strategy was to keep us in the dark… The emails escalated, everything became so stressful. I left. Those months were really hard to keep going, both financially and emotionally. I had bills to pay, I couldn’t take it anymore and left.”

Once the decision was made to leave, Murilo sent an email to his entire mailing list alerting his contacts in Brazil and Latin America about Ad Astra’s financial troubles and refusal to meet their financial obligations.

“After the email I sent to my mailing list denouncing them, I never heard from them again. I was blocked from all their social media accounts. They wouldn’t answer my phone calls.”

A few months later Murilo learned the school was shut down by Australian authorities.

He decided to leave the international education market for good and today runs an accounting firm with his wife.

“Hindsight is 20/20, as they say, only when you look back you can see everything clearer,” he says.

“I am still in Sao Paulo and have moved on, but what about the students who put all their savings into a first-world education promise? They leave their country, and when they arrive [in Australia], it is nothing like that, the school is liquidated, insolvent.”

'I saw the student becoming a product’: What it was like selling the school

Ad Astra’s management refutes all claims that the school was mismanaged – you’ll hear from them later in this story.

Journalist and marketing professional Debora Komukai was in Australia under a student visa looking for a part-time job when she came across a job listing for a Content Producer position at the Ad Astra cooking school.

When she was called in as a second option, only after the first choice had left the business, she felt the school was adhering to a genuine recruitment process.

“The main office was at Collins Street,” she says. “We had three interviews, the process seemed thorough, a wonderful brand new office. They showed me the idea of this amazing sustainable zero-waste kitchen, the school restaurant, something out of this world.”

Debora Komukai
Debora Komukai:"I hope all these people who were humiliated and wronged by the school find justice. The school looked an ideal place for learning, but it was all a farce.”
supplied
Debora stayed at Ad Astra Institute for only two months, from September to October 2018.

She tells SBS Portuguese that at the start she noticed something wasn’t right. As it was for Murilo and Victorio, the absence of the state-of-the-art kitchen and restaurant was a red flag for Debora.

“They explained to us that the reason was that it wasn’t an average industrial kitchen or restaurant, and it would take time to be built as planned... Later I would know this kitchen would never be built.”

There were a number of other events she witnessed that undermined her confidence in the school. She says that part of the staff and students’ kitchen roof fell down, the walls had holes in them and students were put on holidays when maintenance took place at the school. 

Debora remembers an employee, who hadn’t been paid, coming into the school and taking an iPad from the office. She witnessed the police coming in to investigate the robbery.

“He had family, it was all very sad. I don’t know how much money they owed him.”

Debora also tells SBS Portuguese that she had to go to the school not to work but to 'ask for my salary'.

Debora remembers she was so stressed with everything she fell sick and had to go to hospital.

“It was all so hard for me, I was a student, a girl, with no family [in Australia], I was literally scared about what they could do to me. And I had to knock at their door, talk to them, argue, all in English. I didn’t know my rights. It is hard when you are a migrant in a foreign country.”

Debora says the final straw came when she organised a promotional video shoot for one of Ad Astra’s partner companies and had to pay for the job with her own money. “The suppliers came after me thinking I was the one who was not paying them. It was surreal.” 

Debora looked for support from West Justice, a law firm at Study Melbourne that provides free legal advice to students and took the company to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, but chose not to pursue the claim, returning to Brazil instead. 

“I received one salary but they owed me $1,250. I was afraid of claiming it. I started the civil claim but had to abandon it and went back to Brazil. I saw this cycle between the international school and VET* . I saw the student becoming a product. I feel very sorry for them.” 

Debora gives her advice to students looking for a school to enrol.

“I saw students afraid of voicing their concerns, humiliating themselves. I have only one message to them: don’t be afraid. We are students, migrants, but remember you have your rights, we are not in our country but we do have rights and we continued to be humans. We do have a voice.”  

Debora says she hopes Ad Astra’s owner is brought to justice.

“I hope all these people who were humiliated and wronged by the school find justice. The school looked an ideal place for learning, but it was all a farce.”

* Vocational Education and Training (VET) enables students to gain qualifications for all types of employment, and specific skills to help them in the workplace. VET courses are primarily offered by Registered Training Organisations (RTOs), such as Ad Astra’s Institute before it was liquidated and had its RTO cancelled.

‘Australia’s reputation suffers’: The wider impact of Ad Astra's collapse

Ad Astra’s management refutes all claims that the school was mismanaged – you’ll hear from them later in this story.

A spokesperson from the ASQA tells SBS Portuguese that the decision to cancel Ad Astra’s registration was made in May 2019, two years after its initial registration in May 2017. An Audit was conducted in December 2018 and the school was officially shut in August 2019.

“The provider sought a review and stay of ASQA’s decision in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT). On 13 August 2019, the AAT made a decision to refuse the stay application and cancellation took effect on this day. The Applicant did not participate further in AAT proceedings and, on 24 October 2019, the AAT dismissed the review application,” reads a statement from ASQA to SBS Portuguese.

Daniel Bean
Daniel Bean: "Students should try to abide for their visas as much as possible and if they feel they are being exploited we can help, they still be able to a legal right.”
supplied

During the audit ASQA identified Ad Astra’s non-compliance with eight clauses of the Standards for Registered Training Organisations (RTOs). [clauses 1.1, 1.3, 1.5, 1.9, 7.1, 7.2, 8.1 and 8.5]]

In the same month the Supreme Court of Victoria, on application of creditors, ordered the winding up of Ad Astra Institute Pty Ltd and appointed a liquidator.

“The liquidation process is quite long and quite complicated,” says Daniel Bean, Managing Lawyer of Springvale Monash Legal Service. “An organisation can be liquidated in two ways, it can be voluntarily liquidated, that’s when the owner liquidated it himself or it can be liquidated by the government which it was happening at this instance… They’ve been investigated, the law has been breached and the government shut the business themselves.”

Daniel’s team at West Justice at Study Melbourne provided legal support to Debora Komukai, the former Ad Astra employee and student.

“Obviously the shutting down can happen for a number of reasons, the most common reason is that the profits being made by the school are not substantial enough or the money has been filtered away somewhere else, or the school has been running poorly, the debts got too high. That’s generally when the government steps in and looks at closing the school and getting some money out of it to pay at least some employees.”

For Daniel, it is difficult to say what the future holds for Ad Astra’s former students, staff and suppliers, without knowing how much money the school owes and what are their assets.

“Unfortunately students generally are left out in the cold, sometimes they are halfway through a diploma or certificate and are the last ones to be assisted in this situation. There is a government scheme available for underpaid employees but available only to Australian citizens,” says Daniel.  

There is some support available for international students like Debora. Daniel runs a program at Study Melbourne with West Justice where they provide free legal advice for students.

“We can help students from anywhere, people on visas, migrants on employment, family law, crime, we can assist with at no expense, it is a free service… Students should try to abide for their visas as much as possible and if they feel they are being exploited we can help, they still be able to a legal right.”

According to Daniel, five years ago a range of institutions similar to Ad Astra opened in Australia, with many of them also shutting.

“There were smaller schools enrolling a lot of students and their main go was to enroll students and not provide a very good quality education.

“I think rightly Australia has some wonderful universities and some wonderful TAFE colleges but when it comes to small schools, I think Australia’s reputation suffers a little bit.”

A spokesperson from the Department of Education and Training (DET) tells SBS Portuguese that the Tuition Protection Service (TPS) is assisting the international students affected by Ad Astra’s closure.

“The TPS is assisting approximately 150 international students affected by the closure of Ad Astra to find a new placement, or to refund unspent tuition fees.”

According to the statement, “Australia’s international education system is underpinned by strong quality and regulatory frameworks to ensure international students are supported. This includes the Tuition Protection Service (TPS), which assists to place or refunds unspent tuition fees for international students studying in Australia who are affected by a provider closure.”

DET also states that the students generally report high levels of satisfaction with the Australian system.

“Australia has world-leading education system, with more than 1,100 education providers delivering more than 22,000 courses to international students. International students report almost 90% satisfaction scores for their living and study experience in Australia.”

The Department of Home Affairs has publicly available information for students affected by a closure or provider default which is available on the DFAT’s website.

General information about Australia’s Student Visa Program can be found at DFAT’s Explore visa options for studying in Australia

‘We didn’t want the school to close’: Ad Astra's founder James Sackl responds

James Sackl, the owner and founder of Ad Astra Institute spoke to SBS Portuguese about the school’s shut down, international students, and ASQA Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA).

Contradicting the claims of most people SBS Portuguese has spoken to, he says the school was in fact profitable and the reason for the closure wasn’t costs. Sackl blames ASQA for the collapse.

“We have had a fairly long-running issue with ASQA and [it] culminated when we had to move from our Collins Street office because the building [we were in] was about to be demolished. ASQA took issue with the move at a point they were not approving the venue. Basically, it was a catch 22, we weren’t in a complied area because the building hasn’t been approved and they couldn’t approve the building despite us making the application because we were found not compliant. 

"That resulted in the school unfortunate closure. It wasn’t for the costs; it was because ASQA wouldn’t approve our venue application. We spent a lot of money in the new building to put new kitchens in and renovate the upstairs. But unfortunately ASQA cancelled our license because they didn’t approve the new venue.”

James Sackl
James Sackl
JAMESSACKL.COM

According to ASQA statement to SBS Portuguese, during the audit, ASQA identified Ad Astra’s non-compliance with eight clauses of the Standards for Registered Training Organisations (RTOs)). [clauses 1.1, 1.3, 1.5, 1.9, 7.1, 7.2, 8.1 and 8.5]], including not delivering on its promises.

“Those were found not to be accurate in the AAT (Administrative Appeals Tribunal). The only issue that the AAT took to was the fact that the building was not approved by ASQA,” Sackl told SBS Portuguese.

According to Sackl, at the time of the closure, the school had 180 students enrolled.

“Ad Astra just became profitable when we had our license revoked, the school was profitable,” he said.

Questioned about the allegations of former student and staff that the communication about the closure was poor or non-existent, James told SBS Portuguese that all students were informed in an email. 

“It was via email, we did it to students via email. It was unexpected. The solicitors who were acting for us didn’t expect ASQA to make that decision and for staff, of course, we sat everybody down and explained to them. The staff didn’t take it well, really not well. 

“We just invested a lot of money into the new building with new kitchens, we took on more staff because we were running at a profit, it was a big shock.”

All interviewees for this piece mentioned the impressive marketing campaign Ad Astra ran and the sales pitch, with photos of state of art facilities, a zero-waste restaurant, a number of kitchens - one of the ads mention 100 kitchens - and the possibility of students being employed by one of Ad Astra’s business partners. Sackl told SBS Portuguese that he was always serious about the plans.

“We signed the 10-year lease on the new building. We were not kidding when we said we will be here for the long haul, the school became more profitable, so to lose the license just as we were turning a profit, able to invest more money into the vision, it was really disappointing.” 

Questioned if the sales pitch included as benefits a pathway for international students to employment and Permanent Residency in Australia, James told SBS Portuguese that he believed the information "was incorrect". 

Sackl also denies claims of underpayment of employees. Asked if the government was assisting with paying out staff after the closure, he replied that, “Yes, ultimately we still pay, but it’s all administered by the TPS. They should have been paid by now."

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