Hillsong College mandated that students sign NDAs, and it once required a student to scrub toilets for 20 hours, former students say

  • Hillsong College is based in Australia and affiliated with the Hillsong Church, whose congregants have included Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez. Gomez reportedly recently quit the church. 
  • Past students told Insider that they were presented with nondisclosure agreements upon matriculation at the college.
  • One former student said that as part of her education she was required to volunteer at the Hillsong conferences, which on one occasion included scrubbing toilets for 20 hours in one day.
  • Two dozen former students are seeking a congressional investigation in Australia into Hillsong College for what one called "systematic abuse."
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

When Yolandi Bosch enrolled at Hillsong College in 2012, she said she was excited for a fresh start in a "supportive environment filled with new friends and a bright future." She didn't expect to be asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement.

Bosch, who was 24 at the time, said what struck her most about the NDA was a line demanding she "not play or reproduce in any form any digital file, intellectual property, physical property or conversation to any family member or colleague, even in the event the said individuals are related in any way to, or in relationship with Hillsong without the expressed written permission of the General Manager of Hillsong."

Bosch said: "I can't speak to my family about my experience at Hillsong? What are they trying to hide? They're definitely trying to silence people. This is a systematic problem." She did not sign the NDA. "I just kept on 'forgetting' to sign it," she said.

Hillsong College was created in 1995 as an international college that offers theology and Bible courses. The allegations in this article pertain specifically to its main campus, in Sydney. The college is affiliated with Hillsong Church, the celebrity-favorite evangelical megachurch that has recently beenaccused of racism, discrimination and exploitation.

According to Hillsong, more than 10,000 students have graduated from the college. Tuition is about $3,500, but Hillsong, its website says, advises students to budget $10,000 a year for additional semester fees and international healthcare coverage.

Multiple students told Insider that the college relied on student volunteering to keep the Hillsong facilities clean. A number of people said they found the hours devoted to volunteering, which often included manual labor, to be excessive and said they felt taken advantage of by the college. They also expressed concern regarding the NDAs they were asked to sign upon matriculating. 

A former student, who enrolled at Hillsong College in 2016, told Insider that they were told that "I would not be able to do college" without signing a NDA. The student asked to speak on the condition of anonymity because of the NDA they ultimately signed and for fear of retaliation. The student said they believed it meant "I would forfeit my visa … unless I signed, which I consider to be under duress."

A Hillsong College spokesperson said that all students were asked to sign NDAs when they enrolled each semester.

"Our NDA is a clear way for us to communicate the expectation that we meet privacy regulations in Australia and create a safe environment for our staff and students," the spokesperson said.

'They needed me to show that I had leadership skills through working in the toilet section'

Bosch, who is from South Africa, grew disillusioned within months of her enrollment, suffering from "psychological abuse and just the systematic breakdown of my identity," she said.

She said she reached a breaking point at the 2012 Colour Conference, one of Hillsong's annual mega-conferences, when she was removed from choir and placed into something called "Refresh."

The Hillsong spokesperson told Insider that Refresh "was the name of our volunteer and student practicum team that keep our building clean during a week-long church conference. A student was allocated to either an early or late time slot and their total involvement was limited to no more than 20 hours during a week."

Bosch said the workload far exceeded 20 hours a week, with minimal breaks. During her time in Refresh, Bosch said she was once required to scrub toilets for 20 hours in one day.

(The Hillsong spokesperson said its "guidelines would have prohibited any student or volunteer from performing a single task for 20 consecutive hours as part of this program.")

"I wasn't conforming to their ideals, and they needed me to show that I had leadership skills through working in the toilet section," she said. "I think I worked from 6 a.m. until about 2 the next morning."

Internal Hillsong scheduling documents show that Bosch was switched from choir to Refresh. Emails show that Bosch asked her superiors for months about why she was placed in Refresh for three different conferences, but was never given a reason.

In July, six months after her first Refresh placement, Bosch received an email, viewed by Insider, from the Hillsong College campus manager, Duane Raitt. In it Raitt said: "Come in as soon as you can today. As a matter of urgency, please do not leave it too long."

In that meeting — which Bosch says Raitt, along with another staff member, attended — Bosch says she was told something along the lines of: Look, we've had it with you. You couldn't conform to our ideas, and we need to let you go, and you need to leave within 48 hours.

The Hillsong spokesperson said Bosch was not reenrolled because they "received a significant number of complaints from her teachers and other students, including roommates," about her "concerning behavior."

(Bosch told Insider that people complained because she questioned the Hillsong College procedures and that her housemates believed she didn't clean enough. "I was never evicted four times, that's a blatant lie," Bosch said."If that was true, I wouldn't have stayed in the same house with the same four girls for the entire duration of my stay.")

Bosch said she felt as though being a student at Hillsong College amounted to "systematic abuse."

"A church should not be manipulating and controlling," Bosch said. "It's definitely not a church. It's just a corporation. The systematic abuse has to stop, and somewhere somebody has got to speak up and stop it. Otherwise, it will continue and more people will be hurt."

'That sounds like something at a cult'

At this writing, Bosch is one of 672 people in the private Ex-Hillsong College Support Group on Facebook. Some in the group have told Insider that they feel there's a widespread cultural problem with Hillsong College and they want to "highlight the abuse" to regulators.

Insider obtained a 2017 complaint sent to the Australian Skills Quality Authority, a national regulator for Australia's vocational education and training (VET) sector. The complaint, filed by a former student, voices concern that Hillsong College expected students to volunteer for "excessive hours" during conferences, far more than the required 20 hours told to students upon enrollment.

"The particular tasks required of students do not really relate to up-skilling people for Christian Ministry," the student wrote in the complaint. "For instance my tasks included: assembling CD Music packs for sale, selling merchandise, wrapping food products, moving furniture. Whilst moving furniture is part of many Christian ministries: it takes a lot of creative thought to reason how any of these tasks can be considered training."

The former student claimed that, in a private meeting, the college's academic dean, Duncan Corby, stated that he wouldn't want the number of hours actually worked by students "to be made public."

The complaint went on to say that due process was not followed when the student complained internally to Hillsong College.

Rather, the student was offered a refund if they left the college. The Hillsong spokesperson confirmed knowledge of the complaint and said the college remained fully accredited by the ASQA.

"I feel that the overall system is abusive," Laura Hamilton, a former Hillsong College student, said. She enrolled at the college in 2009 and said she felt pressure to do extensive and physically demanding volunteer work. "There's also a very obvious cult-programming thing happening," she added.

Hamilton grew up in Australia. She started attending Hillsong conferences in 2006, and was admitted to Hillsong College in October 2008, hoping to specialize in music at the church and make new friends.

When she matriculated the following year, she said she had to undergo two weeks of "Intensives," which, according to the Hillsong spokesperson, are "condensed courses focused on one subject that takes place over a few weeks rather than in weekly lectures spanning months."

"I was at the first day and they say, 'What we're going to do over the next three weeks, we're going to tear down everything you know about church, everything you know about the Bible, and everything you know about God — we're going tear it down, and then we're going to rebuild it again.'

"And I mentioned that to my parents, and they were, like, 'That sounds really scary. That sounds like something at a cult," Hamilton said.

Hamilton said volunteer work at Hillsong College could be physically and emotionally taxing. Every Tuesday night, she said, she was asked to vacuum two buildings, including one that had a 5,000-person auditorium.

The Hillsong College spokesperson said that when Hamilton was a student, the college enlisted students to help clean facilities to keep student fees low.

"We no longer rely solely on students for the routine maintenance of Hillsong College's facilities," the spokesperson said. "Without speaking with Ms. Hamilton, it's impossible to guess why it would have taken her hours each week to vacuum."

Hamilton says between the volunteer work and the mandatory services, her health deteriorated.

"I figured out that I was attending 13 different services a week. Every single one of those services … they'd take out the offering buckets and you'd be asked to put in some money, and every single one of those services had the smoke machines on. I ended up with chronic bronchitis," Hamilton said. She said she believed it came on "because seven days a week, multiple times a day, I was in an environment where there's pumping smoke into the service."

The Hillsong spokesperson said while fog is regularly used during services, "our records do not indicate that she made any complaints, raised any concerns or asked for any accommodations due to production elements during her time at Hillsong College." After six months at Hillsong College, Hamilton said she packed up her car and drove to Melbourne.

Hamilton and Bosch are among a group of two dozen former students seeking a congressional investigation into Hillsong College.

"I believe that inaction only encourages and continues a cycle of systematic abuse," Bosch said, "and the only way to help those wronged by a very manipulative and controlling system is to speak out" and "champion the cause of justice for every person who has been kicked out, humiliated and bullied by what is a very cunning organization."

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