Ontario takes aim at unapproved universities that target foreign students

Ontario is vowing to clamp down on private universities that are trying to attract foreign students by offering bogus degrees.

The changes, designed to close loopholes in existing legislation, come as the province aims to attract up to 50 per cent more foreign students to its campuses in the next five years.

New powers to be introduced Tuesday will allow the province to shut down schools that offer university degrees that have not been approved by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. Until now, the only recourse for the government has been through the courts, said a spokeswoman for the ministry. "These are organizations that are calling themselves universities that have not gone through the approvals process," Annette Philips said. "They are mostly targeting international students."

At the centre of the crackdown are such schools as Hawkesbury University, which bills itself online as "an independent, co-educational business and liberal arts international institution of higher learning."

The institution, which is headquartered at Prestige Restaurant in Hawkesbury, Ont., has no approvals from the Ontario government to do business in the province as a university or as a private career college. Earlier this month, the province issued a restraining order under the Private Career Colleges Act, barring the unregistered school from advertising its unapproved programs.

Owner Ashraf Hossain Siddiky had been advertising the school on a bright yellow website, which remains up despite the restraining order handed down April 19. Efforts to reach Mr. Siddiky were unsuccessful.

The ministry says the website was tweaked during the investigation to say the school was "proposed" and that it is "not yet operating." The failure to shut down the website entirely was one reason the university was ordered to close down.

Hawkesbury Mayor Jeanne Charleboise knew something was suspicious the day she got an e-mail asking about the new university in town.

"If there was a university here I would know about it. I would have been at the opening. It's an election year," said Ms. Charleboise, the top politician in the town of 10,870 people that sits on the Ontario-Quebec border east of Ottawa.

She alerted the province and the police, which are now investigating.

According to the ministry's report on its own investigation, a designate met with Mr. Siddiky at the school on April 13. He told the designate he was only registered in the state of Delaware, though he tried and failed to get the school incorporated as a federal corporation in Ottawa.

Hawkesbury University had been targeted by the ministry before, but only with a warning. On Aug. 12, 2009, the Postsecondary Accountability branch of the ministry sent a letter to the school telling it to stop advertising. A local news story printed earlier this month spurred the ministry to crack down, the documents read.

All Mr. Siddiky wanted to do was start up a university after his two grown children moved away from home, said brother-in-law Nazrul Talukder from the convenience store he owns in Hawkesbury.

"For a long time he was talking about starting one," he said. "He has an idea that he's going to make a university because there is no university down here."

He said Mr. Siddiky, a lawyer who got his degree in Britain, came to Hawkesbury about 12 years ago and owns and operates Prestige Restaurant.

As the province targets international students, Ms. Philips, the ministry spokeswoman, said it is import that courses offered to foreign students are legitimate.

In the case of Hawkesbury, the province also was able to take action because it was offering vocation training, which is policed by the province under its career college legislation.

With a report from Stephanie Chambers