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Indian international students in Montreal were left in the lurch when their colleges shut down last month.Bernard Brault/The Globe and Mail

Harleen Gill’s parents, both farmers from the Indian state of Punjab, had to tap into their savings to send her to Canada for her education. But now, the 19-year-old fears all of that may have been for nothing. Her college, Collège de comptabilité et de secrétariat du Québec (CCSQ), is one of three private Quebec colleges that have shut down and sought creditor protection, citing financial strains caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ms. Gill is one of 1,700 international students left living in limbo in Canada after the CCSQ, along with M College in Montreal and CDE College in Sherbrooke, were granted creditor protection under the Companies’ Creditor Arrangements Act (CCAA) in early January. Permits for international students stipulate they cannot stay in Canada for more than 150 days without attending class. Their ability to work is also on pause: On a student permit, pupils can work up to 20 hours a week when school is in session. But with the colleges shutting down mid-session, students will not be allowed to work legally.

“I’ve already paid tuition fees for two semesters. The college asked us to pay the fees early. Four days later, they said they were shutting down. I paid $7,000 for the semester that got suspended. And now, I’m worried about my future in Canada,” Ms. Gill said.

Richter, the accounting firm that has been appointed to oversee the restructuring process of these colleges, said on its website that students are entitled to withdraw from the institutions if they so choose. However, this would mean that no refund of tuition fees could be processed. All claims of refunds have been stayed by the CCAA order.

The request for creditor protection comes after provincial officials announced an investigation just more than a year ago into questionable recruitment practices at several private colleges, including M College and CDE College. The practices allegedly targeted students in India. The three recently closed colleges, along with a student-recruitment firm, all operate under the umbrella of RPI group, owned by the Mastantuono family. Joseph Mastantuono is the president of all three. In November, 2020, Quebec’s permanent anti-corruption unit (UPAC) arrested Caroline Mastantuono and her daughter, Christina Mastantuono, on charges of breach of trust and fraud. The prosecution alleged that the two women, along with their business associate, Naveen Kolan, falsified documents to attract foreign students to another school, Lester B. Pearson in Montreal.

The court-appointed monitor looking over the finances of the group did not respond to The Globe and Mail’s request for a comment. However, in a letter to students on Jan. 10, the monitor said the companies were not in a financial position to refund tuition fees.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) and the government of Quebec say they are monitoring the situation. The Quebec education ministry told The Globe that while the government was not a party in what was essentially a contract between the students and the colleges, students had recourse under the law. “This is a contractual relationship in which the Ministry is not a party, the student who feels wronged could file a complaint with the Consumer Protection Office. It is the student’s responsibility to take appropriate action to obtain reimbursement,” the ministry said in an e-mailed response.

Meanwhile, the Indian government has asked students to approach the education wing at the High Commission in Ottawa or the consulate in Toronto for any assistance.

The affected students, most of whom are from India, have been protesting the closures.

Gurvir Singh, one of the students left in the lurch, said the clock started ticking on Nov. 29, when they last had class. “This is an urgent matter and we’re desperate for solutions.”

Mr. Singh said it’s becoming difficult to manage expenses in a city as expensive as Montreal. “We’ve had to dip into our savings. We can’t even work till we get back to class. None of this is our fault, someone needs to step in and help us.”

IRCC said student permit holders will have three options - resume studying at another institution, apply for a different status (i.e. as a worker or visitor) or leave Canada within 150 days.

Herzing College, another private institution in Montreal, has offered free enrolment to students at all three colleges who want to continue their studies.

CCSQ, M College and CDE are undergraduate colleges that offered an array of courses from accounting and administrative studies to legal and business courses. Herzing College is matching up students from these three colleges to the corresponding courses at Herzing. As of mid-February, 98 students had expressed interest.

Other students, such as Ms. Gill, have trepidations. “What’s the guarantee that they won’t shut down, too? After all, they are also a private institution,” Ms. Gill said. She said she will wait for the bankruptcy hearings on Feb. 28 to see where the chips fall. As the question of RPI group’s sale and future ownership is yet to be decided, many like Ms. Gill hope the provincial government might consider taking over the colleges.

Varun Khanna, a member of the Indian-Montreal Youth Students Organization, has been one of the organizers of the protests. “Most students want a government takeover. They aren’t convinced with [Herzing’s] offer. Why would a private institution give up on millions of dollars in tuition fees? What’s in it for them?”

Michael McAllister, president of Herzing College, said he understands that some students might view the institution’s offer with suspicion. But he said if they hadn’t stepped in, the entire private education industry in Montreal would get a bad reputation in the international student community. “The only thing we get out of this is that it’s good PR for private colleges in Quebec,” Mr. McAllister told The Globe.

Herzing College is hoping the word of mouth these students carry will help build their reputation as a safe space for international students. He appealed to them to consider their offer. “I would just say, you have absolutely nothing to lose by looking into it,” he said.

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