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Students walking on St. George St. near the University of Toronto, are photographed on Nov 23, 2022.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Public colleges in Ontario are introducing new rules designed to protect international students from recruiters who use false or misleading claims about life in Canada.

The number of foreign students enrolled at Canadian colleges and universities has skyrocketed in recent years. Last year, more than 800,000 international students held active study permits in Canada – up 43 per cent from five years ago.

But with that has come growing concerns about the potential exploitation of these students. This includes reports of foreign students recruited by agents abroad (who receive a commission from Canadian schools) based on sky-high promises – of gainful employment and an easy road to immigration – only to be met with harsh realities upon arrival in Canada.

“As the international interest in Canada has grown, we found that every now and then, we were coming across agents who were out recruiting students in ways that the colleges weren’t at all comfortable with,” said Linda Franklin, president of Colleges Ontario. The organization represents Ontario’s 24 publicly funded colleges.

“Some agents work in conjunction with the colleges, but there are a group of agents out there that I’m not sure the colleges even have a line on sight on,” Ms. Franklin said. “It’s a business opportunity for them.”

The new rules, which come in place in June of 2024, require that any agent acting on behalf of one of Ontario’s colleges complete a training program. And the colleges are required to continually monitor and assess their relationships with individual agents.

This includes “terminating contracts with any education agent who has been involved in any serious, deliberate or ongoing conduct that is false, misleading, deceptive, or in breach of the law.”

The new rules also prohibit Ontario colleges from making promises they cannot deliver on, including “not guaranteeing any academic, immigration or employment outcome.”

The rules also commit the schools to providing supports for students once they are in the country, including access to medical and mental-health services, as well as accurate information on housing and employment opportunities.

But community groups that advocate for international students say the effect of the new rules will likely be limited. The worst exploitation, they said, often takes place at private colleges – which do not fall under the purview of Colleges Ontario.

Others too point to the complicated global networks that are behind international student recruitment.

In recent years, over 40 per cent of the foreign students in Canada have come from India. They often come from poor families, who take on huge amounts of debt to fund their child’s studies. Those families make arrangements through recruiters – and based off of a misleading or unrealistic portrayal of life in Canada.

“They’re promised that for X amount of dollars, they’ll help their young one get into an accredited Canadian institution that will lead to a work permit and permanent residency and immigration,” said Gurpreet Malhotra, chief executive of Indus Community Services in Peel Region. “That’s the dream.”

But once the student arrives, he said, they quickly realize the opportunities they were promised – of gainful employment after graduation, or a quick path to permanent residency – are unlikely to materialize.

As such, many find themselves facing huge economic and social pressure. A number of recent deaths involving foreign students from India – some of them suspected suicide and overdoses – have highlighted this.

And the schools have a huge financial incentive to continue to perpetuate this system, Mr. Malhotra said.

In 2020, about 30 per cent of students at public colleges in Ontario were international students, according to a report from the province’s Auditor-General. The fees paid by those students represented 68 per cent of tuition revenue.

“These colleges are making a huge amount of money,” Mr. Malhotra said. “They are, in essence, addicted to drawing in more and more international students.”