International students say Canadian private colleges use agents working on commission, both here and overseas, who persuade student recruits that paying tens of thousands of dollars in tuition is the easiest way to get into Canada and work toward becoming a permanent resident.
In some cases, recruits say they signed up for courses they weren’t interested in or didn’t plan to attend because all they really wanted was a student work permit so they could get a job as soon as they arrived.
The criticism of private colleges comes after a recent Globe and Mail investigation reported that recruiters exploit foreign nationals for their money, their labour or both. The cases The Globe looked at affected more than 2,000 people who were told – often falsely – that if they gave recruiters huge fees to arrange jobs or college placements, they would be set for life in Canada.
The reality for international students is that immigration rules allow them to work only 20 hours a week while studying, and provide limited opportunities to stay in Canada after graduation unless they meet language and other requirements and find employers willing to sponsor them.
Since its initial investigation, The Globe has interviewed more than two dozen former and current international students in British Columbia and Ontario who feel disillusioned by their experience.
Some told The Globe they hoped their courses would lead to good jobs in Canada, but they were a waste of time and money because no Canadian business was willing to hire them in their field of study afterward.
Others did not even attend classes. Instead, they say they worked more hours than legally allowed while trying to get a Canadian employer to sponsor them for permanent residency, which then meant applying for a full-time work permit, and often paying more fees to immigration consultants to do the paperwork.
Devinder Thind came from India and now works at a Nando’s fast-food franchise in B.C. He said he just enrolled in his third college program, to study arts.
Mr. Thind said he has paid $32,500 for courses so far, with money he borrowed mostly from his brother. He did that, he said, simply to maintain his student work permit while trying to persuade his employer to sponsor him. His goal was to get permanent residency and find a much better job.
“The [recruiters] make us fake promises like it is good in Canada, you can get your work permit, and it’s all not true," he said. "The whole experience was really bad. Lots of people misguided me. They just use us, right?”
The $15-billion business
Private colleges are big business. In the provinces with the most international students, Ontario now has 476 college and university campuses approved to enroll international students, while B.C. has 256. Most are for-profit companies, regulated by provincial education authorities. They are generally smaller than publicly funded colleges and universities, face less public scrutiny and have lower admission standards.
The number of Canadian study permits granted to foreign nationals has jumped 40 per cent in recent years, to 358,190 last year, from 219,195 in 2015. Canadian Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen has boasted that these students added some $15-billion to the Canadian economy last year alone.
“We are contributing and attracting the best and the brightest from around the world to contribute to our economic growth,” Mr. Hussen said recently in Ottawa.
Applications from international students accelerated after Canada relaxed its rules five years ago to allow them to work off campus, part-time, immediately upon arrival. The students’ spouses may be eligible to apply for open work permits, which allow them to work full-time for any employer.
Federal data show immigration officials rejected more than one-third of all study permit applications last year, up from one quarter five years ago, because visa officers increasingly don’t believe foreign nationals will return home after studying.
Still, it is relatively easy for recruiters and consultants to get international students into private colleges, because they have lower entry requirements than public ones, including for English proficiency.
Those businesses also pay recruiters higher commissions than publicly funded institutions do – up to 25 per cent of tuition – according to several immigration consultants familiar with the fee structures. Colleges have formal arrangements with particular agents, whom they approve to recruit students on their behalf.
An overwhelming experience
One of the private colleges Mr. Thind attended was Sprott Shaw College, which has 16 campuses in B.C. “The instructor was not good, they were just wasting time,” he said of his business-management program.
The provincial agency that regulates private colleges received two formal complaints about Sprott Shaw in the past two years, but neither was upheld. The regulator doesn’t release details about complaints.
Sprott Shaw’s president, Victor Tesan, said the college focuses “on education, not immigration” and that its teachers have ratings of more than four out of five in student surveys. However, Mr. Tesan said he understands the whole experience can be difficult for international students.
“Leaving your country and your culture is a very overwhelming experience,” Mr. Tesan said.
Gurpreet Kaur, also from India, is paying tuition to stay enrolled at Sprott Shaw even though she graduated from its early-childhood education program months ago. That is the only way she can work legally, part-time, while she looks for an employer to sponsor her beyond that.
“If I got a full-time job, I would just quit the school,” said Ms. Kaur, whose parents have spent $37,500 on her tuition.
“Most [employers] say they can’t really help me,” she said, in tears, adding the employers either don’t need anyone or don’t want to deal with the immigration paperwork to sponsor her.
“I am applying for early-childhood education preschool teacher,” Ms. Kaur said. “I paid that much tuition fees. I want to be in my profession.”
Ms. Kaur and Mr. Thind are among several recruits who told The Globe that discussions they had with Sprott Shaw’s international student adviser – who has since left to start his own college – led them to think they could get three-year work permits when they graduated, so they could stay in Canada, work full-time and apply for permanent residency.
“Then I graduated, and the international adviser said that I was not eligible anymore,” Ms. Kaur said.
Sprott Shaw doesn’t have degree programs, so none of its graduates qualify for work permits. Its president told The Globe that 28 students signed a letter a year ago complaining about that, but he said they were told as much when they started classes.
“That was in the [enrollment] documentation that they signed,” said Mr. Tesan, adding that the paperwork was in English, not the students’ native language. He said the college now posts messages online and around campus about the lack of postgraduation work permits.
Just 24 per cent of postsecondary institutions that recruit international students to B.C. have programs that allow students to get work permits after graduation. In Ontario, that number is 45 per cent. Almost all are publicly funded.
Sandeep Kaur signed up to study accounting at a private college, after she and her husband Amarjit Singh Hare came to Canada on visitor visas. She said she spent only a few days at Western Community College in B.C. after an immigration consultant in Surrey charged $25,000 to enroll her, she said, and told her she didn’t have to attend.
“I kept asking him, ‘Are you sure I don’t have to go?’” Ms. Kaur said, adding that she believed him. “He just told us, ‘I will do something for you … you will get a work permit and a study permit and your husband can get a work permit.’”
The couple’s work permits have expired, they can’t find employers to sponsor them and face expulsion from Canada.
“We were just fooled,” she said. “I went [to classes] for some time, but the study materials were not good. … I was unable to understand what the teacher was saying.”
The dean of programs for Western Community College, which has two strip-mall locations in Surrey, said the college makes it “very clear” that students have to attend.
“Immigration consultants are not authorized to make any statement/commitment on behalf of the college,” Vandana Khetarpal said in an e-mail.
A former student adviser from another small, private college told The Globe her job was to track down students who had signed up and keep them registered and paying for their classes.
“About a third … show up the first day and get their study permit and their work permit and they disappear,” said Edith Chiu, who worked at the college for several months in 2016.
She agreed to share her information if the college was not named, because she said she signed an agreement not to talk about the business when she quit. Ms. Chiu said the college was “all for show” and some students paid staff to give them good grades and not report them to immigration authorities for missing classes.
“I had students come to me and ask, ‘How much is it to get an A from you?’ and I would say, ‘I don’t do that,’” Ms. Chiu said. “Students would quickly learn who they can bribe and who they cannot … and the show goes on.”
The Globe looked into another private college, Pacific Link, after immigration consultant Jasbir Mahal said some of its students came to him hoping he could get them a job or admission to a public institution, which would qualify them for a work permit after graduation.
He said they only signed up with Pacific Link College to get into the country.
“They said … ’We just have to pay the fee and we don’t have to show up and do the class,’” Mr. Mahal said. “They are using this loophole to enter Canada.”
Pacific Link’s campus in Burnaby, B.C., is in an office building. When The Globe visited, the one visible classroom was vacant, and a building-maintenance person said he has never seen a single student.
Campus manager Kelly Ewaski said classes at that location – with 30 students enrolled – are only on weekends. He said he isn’t surprised some have no interest in studying.
“It happens every month there are a couple who are expelled when they don’t attend,” said Mr. Ewaski, who estimated one-third will not graduate. He said many simply use the college as their ticket to come to Canada and work.
“I have had a couple of students on orientation day and we ask them ‘Which program are you studying?’ And they don’t even know. How bad is that?” he said. “I don’t find that the most honest way to come in and immigrate.”