When "Vic" - as the 19-year-old Chinese student likes to be known - speaks English, he does so haltingly, pausing after almost every syllable. The words he chooses to describe his experience trying to get a Canadian education are carefully chosen: "It was horrible."
Vic's slow but precise English is all he has to show after a two-year academic runaround that began at an isolated campus in a converted former Communist Party retreat on the outskirts of Beijing, and ended after one unhappy semester taking non-credit English-language classes at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, B.C.
It's not the quality of the education he received in Abbotsford that Vic takes issue with. It's the feeling that he and his family were duped into paying for what they thought was a Canadian university education that would bring him closer to the economics degree he's seeking. The price: $20,000 in tuition fees alone.
Vic is one of thousands Chinese students who arrive at Canadian colleges and universities each year via recruitment agencies that match students eager for a Western education with universities happy for an influx of cash.
However, an investigation by The Globe and Mail found that some agencies abuse their relationships with Canadian schools, promising Chinese families far more than they can deliver. Often, students are charged thousands of dollars for what turns out to be a semester of English-language training at private colleges loosely affiliated with the Canadian universities to which the students' families thought they were paying admission.
Some Canadian universities seeking foreign students - who pay higher tuition fees than Canadian students - recruit directly, without using overseas agencies, avoiding the potential pitfalls.
"There's an industry of bottom-feeders that try to profit from people's dreams of visiting, immigrating or studying in Canada," Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said on a recent visit to Beijing, where he warned Chinese students wanting to come to Canada to choose their representatives carefully "to ensure the students are not taken advantage of."
Vic said his parents paid 100,000 yuan - about $15,000 Canadian - to the Aoji Education Group, a Beijing-based student recruiting agency that he says promised him a coveted spot at a Canadian university. He spent eight months taking additional English courses - less advanced than the ones he took in secondary school, he says - at Aoji's walled campus near Beijing International Airport. Later, his parents paid another $5,000, believing their son had been accepted to UFV.
Instead, he took non-credit English classes at the university, then returned home discouraged and ashamed: "They told us we would go to a university when we got to Canada, but actually it was only a language course. We were very depressed."
He's now back in China, taking a language course in the city of Shenzhen and trying to enroll in an economics program at the University of British Columbia. Like some of the other students who passed through Aoji on their way to Canada, he has yet to tell his parents that their investment hasn't paid for a single credit toward a Canadian university degree. "Our parents think we were taking some academic courses in Abbotsford," he said. "We don't want them to know the truth."
The downtown Beijing headquarters of Aoji - which the company says helps 10,000 students a year get educations in Australia, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom - are a slick affair, with corporate offices on one floor and classrooms sitting side-by-side with bustling recruiting offices on another.
Less impressive is the sprawling campus near the airport, where 350 students live and study in six battered brick buildings that were once a retreat and meeting place for Communist Party officials visiting the Chinese capital. The students are allowed to go to the city only on weekends, but it's hardly an English-immersion environment. The cafeteria is Chinese-only; the toilets are Chinese-style squats. A note written on one classroom wall reads "say goodbey."
Still, the sales pitch is clear: Pass through these halls and you'll soon be in a foreign university. A wall of the main study building is covered in acceptance letters from foreign universities and colleges, including such Canadian institutions as the University of Alberta, the University of Saskatchewan and Ottawa's Carleton University.
But the man who runs the Canadian recruiting program admits the route between Aoji and those institutions is often less direct. Jason Liu estimated that 60 per cent of the 300 to 400 students Aoji sends to Canada each year actually go to language colleges. "A lot of the students have a very weak foundation in English and are anxious to go abroad as soon as possible," he said. "To get into the language schools there are almost no conditions. Just a high school certificate."
Aoji's link with the University of Fraser Valley was actually severed last year over what Aoji calls a "very, very small misunderstanding" over the curriculum being taught at its campus outside Beijing. But the affiliation was immediately picked up for 2009-2010 and the coming academic year by colleges affiliated with Simon Fraser University and the University of Manitoba.