International students from Niagara College say they have been unfairly denied work permits after graduation because they took online courses, which Citizenship and Immigration Canada says constitutes "distance learning."
Ravi Jain, an immigration lawyer at Green & Spiegel LLP, is representing more than 50 students who are having difficulties with their applications for post-graduate work permits, which would allow them to work in Canada for up to three years. Mr. Jain says 30 of his clients have received rejections so far, and around 25 more are still waiting on a decision, but he suspects they will also be denied.
The students are all graduates of Niagara College's general arts and sciences program. Because the students already have a degree from their home countries – India, for the majority of Mr. Jain's clients – as well as at least one year of additional education in Canada, they were given transfer credits to finish the two-year program in as little as four months.
While international students have received work permits in the past after completing the program, this year they are seeing refusals because some of their coursework was done online, which the ministry says makes them ineligible for the permit because it can be considered "distance learning."
"Unfortunately, what we have is these students who are caught in the middle," Mr. Jain said. He noted that the graduates are frustrated by what he says are inconsistencies in the way regulations for the permits have been applied. "The immigration department needs to think about updating their policy with regards to distance learning," he said. " … They're not keeping pace with the changes in education in Ontario and across the country."
Online courses are increasingly prevalent at universities and colleges across Canada, and Steven Hudson, vice president academic at Niagara College, said he was surprised they were a problem.
"I would be very surprised if students in most programs in Ontario now, at either the college or university level, did not take online courses as part of completing their credential," he said. "It's been a focus for additional flexibility for a number of years now."
Mohit Kumar, 24, lives with two other graduates from Niagara College. He said he and his roommates took the same courses at Niagara College and filed virtually identical paperwork to apply for the work permit, but they were accepted while he is still waiting for an answer. He worries he will be denied.
"They got their permits after two and a half months. I attached the same documents, same transcripts – not even a single difference between their and my application," he said.
Nancy Caron, a spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, said in a statement that students who complete programs by distance learning, whether inside or outside Canada, are not eligible for a post-graduate work permit, and any work permit applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis.
"We continuously review our regulations and guidelines for officers to ensure they serve Canada's best interests," she said.
Many students are worried about being sent home when they were expecting to be able to work in Canada, especially when their families have spent thousands of dollars for them to be educated abroad.
"These programs are highly attractive to foreign students," Mr. Jain said. "Before [colleges] design these programs, they need to be very careful about how they design them, and they need to be careful about offering online courses, where in the current rule from CIC is you can't have distance learning."
Mr. Hudson denied that Niagara College markets the program to appeal to international students who intend to apply for the work permits.