Training courses that suggest spirit channelling, clairvoyance and shamanism should be used in mental health practice have received more than $5 million in funding under the federal government’s vocational education loan scheme.
Three colleges — including Phoenix Institute, which is at the centre of a growing scandal engulfing the private training industry — received $5.4m through the VET FEE-HELP loan program last year for the courses in “transpersonal” counselling and art therapy.
It is expected the funding figure for 2015 could push the total loans over the past two years to well over $10m, with total VET FEE-HELP lending almost doubling across the sector.
The counselling and art therapy courses, also taught at Ikon Institute and the College of Complementary Medicine, were devised by Ralph “Rafael” Locke, a self-described shaman and medicine person in the North American traditions.
Study material associated with those courses suggest some mental health issues could be “confused” with pseudoscientific experiences.
“Historically, shamanism has been confused with schizophrenia by anthropologists because shamans often speak of altered state experiences in the spirit world as if they were ‘real’ experiences,” one handbook reads.
“As the person accepts the calling and becomes a shaman, their illness usually disappears.”
There is also some confusion about Dr Locke’s professional experience.
Phoenix Institute said Dr Locke, who was listed as its director of academic leadership, had received a CSIRO postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was “professor in the Department of Perceptual Studies” at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.
The CSIRO told The Australian it was “unable to find any record of a Rafael Locke either working for … or having any association” with the organisation — a claim rejected by Dr Locke.
It was also unable to locate records of a Ralph Locke.
Meanwhile, the University of Virginia said records indicated Dr Locke did not have a faculty appointment.
Dr Locke said there had been some confusion and he conducted research for the Ray Westphal Neuroimaging Laboratory, an autonomous part of the University of Virginia that studies extraordinary anomalies and experiences.
The courses authored by Dr Locke cost more than $16,000 through Phoenix Institute, a college that is being sued by the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission for alleged unconscionable conduct in enrolling vulnerable students.
While the ACCC investigation is targeting online business courses, the Australian Counselling Association, one of two peak counselling bodies, has removed Phoenix Institute’s accreditation.
ACA chief executive Philip Armstrong said of the 40 colleges teaching diplomas of counselling, just seven met the organisation’s accreditation standards.
The number of colleges offering the courses had doubled in three years after the government-backed loans for students were extended to private vocational education operators, Mr Armstrong said.
The VET FEE-HELP scheme funds colleges and leaves students with the debt, which has to be repaid only if they earn more than $54,000 in a year. “There’s chalk and cheese between the courses that are being delivered as far as meeting industry standards and those who are just delivering it because people are paying,” he said.
Mr Armstrong warned that in general, poorly trained students could do damage, particularly when dealing with relationship problems and by missing signs of significant mental health issues.
The ACA had deregistered Phoenix Institute’s founder and previous owner Martin Peake in 2012 after finding he had pursued an inappropriate relationship with a past or current client.
Mr Peake sold the college to Australian Careers Network.
In a separate move, the federal regulator, the Australian Skills Quality Authority, is attempting to close the college. ACN yesterday succeeded in halting the deregistration, with the Australian Administrative Tribunal ordering a stay until it hears an appeal next year.
ACN, headed by former policeman Ivan Brown, is chaired by Stephen Williams, chairman of the council of Sydney Church of England Grammar School, an exclusive private school.