Schools in South Korea that are certified to teach British Columbia's curriculum could be forced to close amid a visa crackdown on teachers that has raised questions about the B.C. government's ability to protect students, their instructors and the province's reputation abroad.
The uncertainty comes as South Korean immigration officials also target schools certified by other Canadian provinces and jurisdictions in the United States, leaving teachers on work visas facing deportation.
B.C.'s Education Ministry runs a multimillion-dollar program that allows 45 private schools in eight countries to teach B.C.'s public school curriculum. In exchange, the schools pay licensing fees that amount to tens of thousands of dollars a school.
This winter, all the South Korean schools passed their annual inspections conducted by third-party contractors sent by the province.
But the South Korean government began a crackdown on international teachers last month, when 14 Canadian teachers at a B.C.-certified school, Canada British Columbia International School, were abruptly deported. The school, which had 160 students, was placed on probation and has disappeared from the B.C. government's website without explanation. Now, teachers at the four other schools in South Korea have signed orders agreeing to leave the country this month after local officials alleged that owners of the schools illegally secured visas for tutoring at a private academy – not teaching at an international school.
A spokesperson for B.C.'s Education Ministry declined to answer questions about the schools, saying the provincial bureaucracy is still in "caretaker mode" amid the political uncertainty after the May 9 election. However, a June 7 update on the B.C. Education Ministry's website for the program said the province has been working with South Korean diplomats to resolve the problems, and that the ministry has started a review, expected to be finished next month, into the operations of the four other schools still teaching the curriculum on the peninsula.
Newly re-elected New Democrat MLA Rob Fleming, education critic during the last legislative session, said the offshore school program needs to be "very thoroughly reviewed, possibly by an external party."
"My concern is that the branch within the ministry didn't do anything to protect the teachers working with a B.C. licence and the broader issues around how schools marketing B.C. curriculum internationally are doing business," said Mr. Fleming, whose party is preparing to defeat the minority Liberal government in the legislature in the coming weeks.
Margaret Hwu and Alexander Hebb, two teachers now back in Vancouver after being deported last month, say B.C.'s Education Ministry did not offer enough help when they ran into trouble in South Korea.
"When we desperately and very emotionally asked for help [from the ministry]; asked for someone on the ground; asked for some kind of advice; some way for us to understand the legal system here and how to go home safely and properly – we were given silence," Ms. Hwu said. "They were very quick to say to the media we've dealt with it, this is what the teachers are getting [in severance].
"But it's not about that and we actually didn't get all our money."
They say the best thing the B.C. government could do to reform the system is to hire on-the-ground representatives fluent in the local language to help and advise teachers. In the current system, schools hire liaisons to communicate with the ministry while looking out for the best interest of ownership – not teachers and students, they said.
Parents and administrators can complain about the actions of teachers in offshore schools through B.C.'s Teacher Regulation Branch, but educators, who are not members of the B.C. Teachers' Federation, can only seek recourse from local regulators.
In the absence of any guidance from the ministry, Ms. Hwu and Mr. Hebb say they and a dozen of their former colleagues have reached out to other B.C. teachers at Korean offshore schools to try to help counsel them through the jarring process of getting kicked out of the country.
"The Ministry will have to work with the Korean government if these schools are to survive, but it still begs the question of why didn't they ensure that they were working within the laws of the Korean government in the first place?" Mr. Hebb said.
A former staff member at the Canada B.C. International School, where the teachers were deported last month, claims to have warned the B.C. government earlier this year that the school had only a local business licence to run a kindergarten – and thus was violating the terms of the visas secured for their teachers.
The former staff member, who asked to remain anonymous to be able to continue working in the offshore system, wrote to the B.C. Education Ministry in January to warn that the school had been operating illegally for a year. The educator provided e-mail correspondence that shows a ministry official acknowledged receipt of the complaint.
The teacher said the bureaucrat did not appear interested in verifying whether the school was breaking local laws and, consequently, violating the agreement it signed with the province.
"This hands-off approach where it's 'not our problem, not our thing' really doesn't inspire a lot of confidence in the ministry," said the educator, who has worked at B.C. offshore schools in a handful of countries. "It makes it look like a big money grab essentially, and I don't like that part of it."
In April, the school faced an unscheduled two-day inspection, which it passed.
Days later, Ms. Hwu and Mr. Hebb said, the school's teachers were hauled into immigration facilities and compelled to sign documents in which they agreed to leave the country.
The owner of the school did not respond to a request for comment.
Each offshore school pays the Ministry of Education $15,000 a year to use the curriculum and a $350 fee for each student, as well as the cost of on-site annual inspections, which are often done by educators affiliated with the province's private schools. Thirty-five schools are located in China, with a single school in each of Colombia, Egypt, France, Japan, Qatar and Thailand.
The schools are part of a push by the B.C. government to attract international students to its postsecondary institutions, where they pay up to four times the tuition of locals and spent $3.5-billion in B.C. in the 2015 fiscal year.
Ontario faced criticism last year over allegations it was not properly regulating its 20 offshore schools, which were reportedly inflating the grades of their students to get them into Canadian universities.
In 2012, B.C. updated its program to mandate that prospective students pass entrance exams for English proficiency before joining an offshore school after similar media reports surfaced of schools in China fixing grades. The Ministry of Education at the time also said it would take a closer look at the owners of these schools and imposed an annual re-certification process.