To the outside world Ashleigh Howe had it all: the 29-year-old ran a growing business empire providing accommodation for international university students with offices in Sydney and Shanghai.
Indeed, the self-described “serial entrepreneur” from Potts Point was busy expanding her interests with three new businesses in China. One targeted wealthy locals hoping to send their children to summer art camps costing up to US$12,500.
But a Herald investigation can reveal that around 100 mostly Chinese students attending university in Sydney claim that they were gouged fees by Howe’s businesses. Legal advocates say these fees were unenforceable.
It exposes dubious practices on the fringes of our education sector and threatens the reputation of Australia’s third-largest export industry.
Local businesses including a high-end office landlord, lawyers and a graphic designer chased Howe for payment with a bookkeeping firm forcing the issue in 2016 by putting her business into liquidation. Liquidators won an order in the NSW Supreme Court last year for Howe to repay $689,000. Six months later, she has not paid.
Howe also has a string of default judgments from Local Court proceedings against her, including one for more than $100,000, from businesses that say she promised to pay them but never delivered. People who worked for Howe in China and Australia also claim they have outstanding entitlements.
And according to liquidators, there is no evidence her insolvent company lodged $400,000 of client bonds with Fair Trading. She has been accused of trading while insolvent and entering uncommercial transactions.
When contacted for comment last week, Ms Howe directed The Sydney Morning Herald to her lawyer who did not respond to detailed questions.
Further investigations into Howe’s business by liquidators have been hindered because they believe she may have left the country.
‘A lot of the fees weren’t legitimate’
The pitch for international students travelling to Australia to study was enticing: we’ll find the accommodation, arrange cleaning and even pick you up from the airport.
Howe, a SCEGGS Darlinghurst old girl, set up her Student Concierge Company in 2015, offering to source accommodation for international students in Sydney’s inner east, mainly around the University of NSW. It would later offer similar services under the name Global Education Advisory.
The business claimed to “look after over 2000 students per year” in correspondence sighted by the Herald and promised clients they would be picked up from Sydney airport and taken to their new home “in our BMW X5”.
Hayley Stone, coordinator of Eastern Area Tenants Service, saw first-hand what happened next.
Over four years until the end of 2018, around 100 students who sought accommodation from Student Concierge and Global Education Advisory around UNSW found themselves hit with exorbitant fees and aggressive retrieval tactics. They also faced difficulty getting their bond or security deposits returned, she said.
Stone said her organisation handled 84 cases in relation to Howe’s businesses, noting students were required to sign an additional agreement on top of the standard agreement covered by NSW law. It’s understood Kingsford Legal Centre also represented many clients.
The additional agreement forced students to hand over money for a range of other fees either not stated or ordinarily included under a Standard Occupancy Agreement or Residential Tenancy Agreement.
«A lot of the fees and charges that were being applied were not actually legitimate,” she said. “For instance, fees for end-of-lease cleaning services, registration fees, fees to cut off electricity, things like that.”
During the time Malaysian international student Jien Teo, 21, stayed at the Kingsford address Global Education Advisory had arranged for him in 2017, Howe attempted to have him pay double his quarterly rent, or $12,644, weeks in advance due to “currency controls in China”. In the end, Jien would pay $6322 a week early.
“I don’t have family here, so you do have this fear … especially because not all international students have money, so you do have this fear of being evicted,” he said.
He experienced months of terse communication via text message with Howe and ultimately moved out, agreeing to pay a vacate fee demanded by Howe.
For many students, getting their bond back after they decided to leave one of the properties Howe managed proved the biggest issue.
“Most of the problems came at the end when me and my roommate tried to get our bond,” Singaporean student Jason Poh said.
Poh claimed it was not until his roommate engaged a lawyer that the additional fees put to them were dropped and the pair were able to get their bond back.
Kelvin Ho, a domestic student who now lives in Hong Kong, also had difficulty getting his security deposit back after being invoiced for a $440 “vacate fee”.
“She was evasive and unresponsive in her dealings with me and only returned my bond after repeated unanswered requests to do so.
“I think the thing she was doing was relying on the fact these students wouldn’t have good enough English — they wouldn’t know where to go,” Ho said.
It wasn’t just Howe’s clients who were having troubles. Her suppliers were having difficulty getting paid and contacting her.
Naomi Tosic, director of The Office Space in Surry Hills, brought a case against her in 2016 after Howe leased the high-end commercial real estate the previous year and then stopped paying her invoices.
The Office Space was owed about $10,000, however Tosic said their problems with Howe continued well after “she disappeared”.
“We were getting a lot of calls from people chasing Ashleigh and chasing money, and a few people turning up the office to see her although she had been gone a while.”
By late 2016, Howe’s bookkeepers had had enough of waiting for an unpaid bill of $16,000 and in December succeeded in ordering Student Concierge Company into liquidation.
Liquidators were appointed and began piecing together what was going on in Student Concierge Company. A week later the business name Student Concierge was registered to another Howe family company, The Challbion. Six months later Global Education Advisory was launched under another family company, Enterprising Howe.
Throughout 2017, as Student Concierge and then Global Education Advisory continued to trade, including under licence with the permission of the liquidators, clients claim Howe aggressively pursued payments.
But at the same time liquidators were going through the company’s accounts and hearing from creditors.
In reports to creditors, they said Howe “appears to conduct herself as a shadow director” and “solely manages the company’s operations and financial affairs”, noting poor financial control and inaccurate records. The company never lodged a business activity statement or any other tax return.
They identified nearly $650,000 in voidable transactions, and said the company may have been trading insolvent and be liable for an insolvent trading claim of nearly $100,000. Nearly $400,000 in uncommercial transactions in the form of internet transfers and withdrawals were identified.
And while the company accounts detailed more than $440,000 in student rental deposits, the liquidators found no evidence that the insolvent company had lodged the money with Fair Trading. The liquidators said Howe maintained another company had lodged the money.
A rental property requires a bond to be lodged with Fair Trading while boarding house accommodation does not, even though landlords and agents are encouraged to do so.
One former client who spoke with the Herald said she had a standard form residential tenancy agreement and when she rang Fair Trading she was told no bond had been lodged.
In October 2017 the liquidators took action against Howe in the Supreme Court alleging unreasonable director related transactions, insolvent and uncommercial transactions. Last September Howe was ordered to repay $689,000 within 21 days.
Liquidators say she has not paid.
They have been unable to serve notice on her as they believe she has been in China. Her art school business, Look Learn Do, which targets wealthy Chinese, along with other businesses including a luxury travel and wine operation, are understood to have commenced operations in 2018.
‘Would this happen to Australians?’
Liquidator Steve Naidenov from Veritas Advisory wasn’t surprised at what he saw happening to international students seeking accommodation.
“It’s not the first matter concerning this industry I’ve come across,” he said. “It’s lucrative and operators have been known to take advantage of international students.»
Acting director of the Kingsford Legal Centre Emma Golledge said: “In our experience, providers may represent accommodation to be in a boarding house to avoid the protections afforded to tenants under NSW’s residential tenancy laws.”
Jien Teo, who is still in Australia studying, wants to put the ordeal behind him, but can’t help but think if he was treated differently from Australians.
“How I lived was very interesting, it was like a house, but you’d have individual units and you had neighbours. I’d see Australians living there as well and I just wonder whether they get the same treatment.
“I never really asked them because it’s a private matter and you don’t go around asking people.”
It wasn’t until his new neighbour from Singapore moved in that he decided to raise Howe’s behaviour with anyone.
“I was just warning him about it and he told me that Ashleigh did the same thing to him,” he said.
Georgina is a digital editor at The Sydney Morning Herald.
Michael Evans is Investigations Editor at The Sydney Morning Herald.