When "Vic" - as the 19-year-old Chinese student likes to be known - speaks English, he does so haltingly, pausing after almost every syllable. The words he chooses to describe his experience trying to get a Canadian education are carefully chosen: "It was horrible."
Vic's slow but precise English is all he has to show after a two-year academic runaround that began at an isolated campus in a converted former Communist Party retreat on the outskirts of Beijing, and ended after one unhappy semester taking non-credit English-language classes at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, B.C.
It's not the quality of the education he received in Abbotsford that Vic takes issue with. It's the feeling that he and his family were duped into paying for what they thought was a Canadian university education that would bring him closer to the economics degree he's seeking. The price: $20,000 in tuition fees alone.
Vic is one of thousands Chinese students who arrive at Canadian colleges and universities each year via recruitment agencies that match students eager for a Western education with universities happy for an influx of cash.
However, an investigation by The Globe and Mail found that some agencies abuse their relationships with Canadian schools, promising Chinese families far more than they can deliver. Often, students are charged thousands of dollars for what turns out to be a semester of English-language training at private colleges loosely affiliated with the Canadian universities to which the students' families thought they were paying admission.
Some Canadian universities seeking foreign students - who pay higher tuition fees than Canadian students - recruit directly, without using overseas agencies, avoiding the potential pitfalls.
"There's an industry of bottom-feeders that try to profit from people's dreams of visiting, immigrating or studying in Canada," Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said on a recent visit to Beijing, where he warned Chinese students wanting to come to Canada to choose their representatives carefully "to ensure the students are not taken advantage of."
Vic said his parents paid 100,000 yuan - about $15,000 Canadian - to the Aoji Education Group, a Beijing-based student recruiting agency that he says promised him a coveted spot at a Canadian university. He spent eight months taking additional English courses - less advanced than the ones he took in secondary school, he says - at Aoji's walled campus near Beijing International Airport. Later, his parents paid another $5,000, believing their son had been accepted to UFV.
Instead, he took non-credit English classes at the university, then returned home discouraged and ashamed: "They told us we would go to a university when we got to Canada, but actually it was only a language course. We were very depressed."
He's now back in China, taking a language course in the city of Shenzhen and trying to enroll in an economics program at the University of British Columbia. Like some of the other students who passed through Aoji on their way to Canada, he has yet to tell his parents that their investment hasn't paid for a single credit toward a Canadian university degree. "Our parents think we were taking some academic courses in Abbotsford," he said. "We don't want them to know the truth."
The downtown Beijing headquarters of Aoji - which the company says helps 10,000 students a year get educations in Australia, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom - are a slick affair, with corporate offices on one floor and classrooms sitting side-by-side with bustling recruiting offices on another.
Less impressive is the sprawling campus near the airport, where 350 students live and study in six battered brick buildings that were once a retreat and meeting place for Communist Party officials visiting the Chinese capital. The students are allowed to go to the city only on weekends, but it's hardly an English-immersion environment. The cafeteria is Chinese-only; the toilets are Chinese-style squats. A note written on one classroom wall reads "say goodbey."
Still, the sales pitch is clear: Pass through these halls and you'll soon be in a foreign university. A wall of the main study building is covered in acceptance letters from foreign universities and colleges, including such Canadian institutions as the University of Alberta, the University of Saskatchewan and Ottawa's Carleton University.
But the man who runs the Canadian recruiting program admits the route between Aoji and those institutions is often less direct. Jason Liu estimated that 60 per cent of the 300 to 400 students Aoji sends to Canada each year actually go to language colleges. "A lot of the students have a very weak foundation in English and are anxious to go abroad as soon as possible," he said. "To get into the language schools there are almost no conditions. Just a high school certificate."
Aoji's link with the University of Fraser Valley was actually severed last year over what Aoji calls a "very, very small misunderstanding" over the curriculum being taught at its campus outside Beijing. But the affiliation was immediately picked up for 2009-2010 and the coming academic year by colleges affiliated with Simon Fraser University and the University of Manitoba.
"The whole reason people pay money to these companies with extremely poor service is because Canadian universities lend them credibility," said Eric Gibb, a Victoria native who taught at Aoji before leaving after a falling-out with management. "These students think they're signing a deal with the university. They're not. They're signing a deal with an entrepreneur who signed a deal with the university."
Mr. Gibb, who now works as a Beijing-based consultant for Canadian universities, said it angered him how his students were treated as cash cows on both sides of the Pacific. At Aoji, he said, they received an expensive, second-rate English course using "textbooks that were stapled-together photocopies." In Canada, he said, no one seemed to worry about the quality of the students, or how they got there, so long as they paid their tuition.
Last year, 70 Aoji graduates arrived at the Fraser International College and the International College of Manitoba, the private-language colleges affiliated with Simon Fraser University and the University of Manitoba. By taking in commissions of as much as 10 per cent of the tuition a student pays at a foreign university - in addition to its own direct charges to the student - Aoji's owners appear to have done well. Soon, the agency will move out of the aging retreat and into a new $100-million campus to be built in Beijing.
William Ko, financial director of Fraser International College, refused comment on the private institution's relationship with Aoji: "We're not providing any information at all."
Aoji's founder and president, Li Ping, says his company has expanded rapidly since it first started sending Chinese students to Australia in the 1990s. "We do all the consulting for the students. All the enrolment papers, all the [visa]application papers. They can choose which universities, even which faculties." Aoji is one of the largest of some 400 registered student recruiting agencies in China that help match Chinese students with foreign universities. At an education fair in Beijing in March, one of Aoji's rivals, the Jin Ji Lie Group, featured models striding a lit catwalk waving scarves covered in maple leaves and the word "Canada."
"The ones who guarantee [students a place in a foreign university] they are the worst. They are selling something they can't deliver," said Karen McKellin, director of the international student initiative at the University of British Columbia, which shuns the use of Chinese agencies and recruits directly in China. "…There is a great desire among parents to find a place for their student children, and the world is a big place. If you're 18, you're probably not adept at figuring all this out."
In Canada, the industry of importing Chinese students for profit similarly teeters in a regulatory grey area. Although adjacent to the universities they're affiliated with, the Fraser International College and the International College of Manitoba are operated by Navitas Ltd., a publicly traded Australian company.
"They take in students who are not otherwise qualified, including in speaking English, [and]they give them a university transitional year," said Nancy Johnston, executive director of student affairs at Simon Fraser University. "The goal is to get them up to our admission standards. If they spend a year at FIC, and have success there, they will be on a path to SFU. We're in business with them, because they have a good quality product. It's a win, win, win, and along the way we make some money."
But some educators argue it's also a way for universities to maximize their profit by selling their name to, and getting tuition fees from, students who otherwise don't qualify. "These [language colleges]are private companies who come to public universities, and they buy the brand name. …That immediately gives them a competitive advantage," said David Robinson, associate executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.
Students attending FIC and ICM are told that if they pass one year at the college, they can go directly into second year at Simon Fraser or the University of Manitoba. Often that happens. Sometimes it doesn't. Mr. Gibb, the ex-Aoji teacher, argues that Canadian universities must scrutinize what is done in their name.
"You can't have people spending two or three years of their lives, just to find out in the end that they're not cut out for a Canadian university," he said. "The universities need to take a small share of the money they're making off of this and put it into looking at whether these kids are getting what they pay for."
Editor's note: Eric Gibb left Aoji after a falling-out with management. Incorrect information appeared in the original newspaper version of this article and an earlier online version. This online version has been corrected.