Nazim Baksh, Lisa Ellenwood, Mark Kelley, Satbir Singh Aulakh · CBC News · Posted: Oct 13, 2022
Dilpreet Kaur's parents were worried it would be difficult for her to find a job in her home state of Punjab, India, where her father toils long, lonely hours as a rice and wheat farmer. She, too, felt there was no future for her there.
So last year, her dad sold two trucks for $28,000 and mortgaged the family's land to raise money for her to come to Canada, rent a room in a shared apartment in Toronto's east end and pay $16,000 in international tuition fees for the first year of a two-year college program.
Kaur, 19, told CBC's The Fifth Estate that she consulted with a college recruiter, one of a legion of freelance agents operating in an unbridled market in India who earn commissions by signing up students to attend Canadian colleges — sometimes by painting a distorted picture of the education on offer and the ease of life in Canada. The recruiter directed her to Alpha College, a school she'd never heard of before.
"I don't know why she just suggested this college," Kaur said in an interview. Nevertheless, she enrolled in a computer systems technician course at Alpha.
"Before coming here, it was kind of, in my mind, 'Canada is so beautiful. I'm going to come here, just earn well, live a life, have fun at the weekends,' like we saw in the movies," she said.
"When I came here it was different, it was completely different."
Increasing numbers of Ontario's international college students come, like Kaur, from India, where it's not uncommon for rural families such as hers to literally bet the farm to raise enough money to pay for a daughter or son's education, hoping they'll eventually land a decent job and be able to remit money back home to repay the debt.
Drawn by Canada's reputation and the potential to gain permanent residency, tens of thousands of foreign students enrol every year in Canadian post-secondary schools. The vast majority head to universities and public colleges.
But a subset, about 25,000 students as of last year, had been enticed to enrol at private career colleges in Ontario that partner with public colleges — colleges that have grown dependent on the international students' much higher tuition fees, typically four to five times what a domestic student pays. Critics told The Fifth Estate those colleges are packing pupils into classrooms — real or virtual — with little regard to government rules, student wellbeing or anything beyond the bottom line.
Since the pandemic began, Alpha, a private career college in partnership with public St. Lawrence College in Kingston, Ont., has more than doubled its enrolment, to 4,900 students, whereas its two-storey building at Kennedy Road and Passmore Avenue in Toronto has a capacity of just 420, according to the Toronto fire department.
"They just want us to give money, again and again. And get rich, filling their pockets, and don't really care about us at all," Kaur said of her experience.
A report from Ontario's auditor general last December found that the province's smaller public colleges, particularly the ones in smaller or northern communities where domestic enrolments have been declining, "have become highly dependent financially on international students but increasingly face challenges in attracting these students to their home campuses."
As a result, 11 of them have entered into partnerships with private career colleges in the Toronto area, allowing students to live in or around Toronto but take courses toward a diploma from a public college located in Timmins or North Bay, for example.
The auditor general's report found that the tuition revenue from these partnerships single-handedly meant the difference between running a deficit or a surplus for five of the six public colleges that had them in place as of 2019-20, and is also lucrative for the private career colleges, with net profit margins ranging from 18 to 53 per cent.
"With reduced funding from government, international students have become bread and butter sustaining these institutions," said Earl Blaney, an advocate for international students and a registered Canadian immigration consultant based in London, Ont.
"Their appetite is insatiable. They're doing everything they can to find more ways to bring in more students… whether it is increasing class sizes, whether it is irresponsibly bringing in students that they don't have enough support to offer. I mean it doesn't matter. What matters is numbers."
Recruiters make questionable claims
Education recruiters represent the first step in the chain from farmer's field to classroom. It's a cutthroat industry in India, where thousands of independent agents compete to earn around $2,000 for each student they recruit for a Canadian college with which they have an agreement.
Alpha College, for example, got 100 per cent of its international students in its most recent academic year through recruiters, according to documents obtained by The Fifth Estate.
Ontario's public colleges paid more than $114 million in commissions to recruiters in 2020-21, according to last year's auditor general report; the total paid by the private career colleges isn't tracked.
The Fifth Estate's investigation went undercover in Punjab state, using hidden cameras, to see what recruiters are telling potential students. A father and his 19-year-old son interested in a Canadian education agreed to wear a hidden camera while meeting with several recruiters in Jalandhar, the state's third-biggest city.
In one of their meetings, the recruiter outlined that tuition would cost around $17,000 for the first year.
"Will he be able to find a job for the second year?" the father asked.
The recruiter replied that "it is very easy for students to pay their second-year tuition fees."
In fact, as The Fifth Estate found, many international college students struggle to earn enough money in Canada to pay their living expenses, much less tuition for their second year.
Last Friday, the federal government temporarily lifted the cap of 20 hours of off-campus work a week that international students had previously been limited to during school semesters. At minimum wage in Ontario, the limit meant international students couldn't expect to earn much more than about $22,000 a year — not enough to cover $16,000 or $17,000 in tuition and have funds left over for rent, food, utilities and other essentials. And that's while also studying full-time.
During the meeting involving the father and his 19-year-old son, the father asked about a well-established public college in Toronto. But the recruiter directed him instead to a little-known private career college.
"There is a college called Cambrian at Hanson," he said, referring to private Hanson College, which is tucked away in a strip mall in Brampton, Ont. Hanson has had a partnership since 2005 with Cambrian, a public college based in Sudbury, Ont., 350 kilometres to the north.
When contacted by The Fifth Estate, a Hanson College spokesperson wouldn't confirm whether the school had a relationship with that particular recruiter, but did say the college works with "recruitment agents across various regions globally, including Indian agencies," and that the students they sign up account for about 30 to 35 per cent of the school's enrolment.
The auditor general noted that because recruiters' commissions are a percentage of the tuition fees paid by the students they sign up, "recruitment agencies are incentivized to enrol as many students as they can in the programs that charge the highest tuition fees."
Dubious claims about visas
At another recruitment agency, the father expressed concern that after his son graduated, it might be hard to get permanent residency in Canada.
"Definitely not," the recruiter said. "It's easy for students to get permanent residency."
In reality, a Statistics Canada study last year found only about 30 per cent of people who come to Canada on a student visa had obtained permanent residency within a decade.
Even after the father and son left the agents' offices, they were approached on the street by recruiters for another agency offering to charge less for their services and to provide a more personal relationship.
The Fifth Estate went undercover in India to reveal the pitch made to some students planning to attend Canadian colleges. The father and son in this video are interested in a Canadian education and agreed to wear a hidden camera as they met agents.
The Ontario auditor general's report found similar examples of dubious claims made by college recruiters, including agencies that promised "100 per cent visa success" and others that advertised "guaranteed scores" on English aptitude tests.
In recent years, a new type of recruitment has cropped up. A number of "edu-tech" companies in Canada, Australia and Singapore have created online platforms to connect the millions of potential students in other countries with the thousands of recruiters and educational institutions in Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Australia and Ireland.
But critics like Blaney, the international student advocate and immigration consultant, said these so-called aggregator companies only put more distance between colleges and the recruiters who are signing up students for them. "Ten thousand-plus sub-agents on the ground … have absolutely no direct connection with the college. The college has no ability to screen them, they have no ability to review their work or conduct with the student, promises made, advertising, you name it," Blaney said.
Colleges exceed provincial enrolment limits
Blaney said the volume of foreign students coming to Canada really picked up starting 10 years ago, after the federal government declared the country needed more skilled immigrants. A federal advisory panel also recommended doubling the number of international students to more than 450,000 in total by 2022. Canada sailed far past that target and had 621,000 people on student visas as of Dec. 31, 2012, according to federal data.
The crush of students coming from abroad opened up more opportunities for the province's public colleges to enter into partnerships with private career colleges; nine such deals have been signed since the 2012 report.
All those international tuition fees now provide more money to Ontario's colleges — $1.7 billion in 2020-21, according to the province's auditor general — than the provincial government's total funding of $1.6 billion, which is the lowest amount of per capita government funding of any province in Canada.
Ontario's Ministry of Colleges and Universities officially caps the number of international students that a public college can have at one of its private career college partners. The quota is a maximum of two times the number of international students enrolled at the public college's home campus.
But the provincial auditor general found a number of colleges have exceeded those limits in recent years with seemingly no consequences. North Bay-based Canadore College's private partner had 8.8 times the number of international students as the college itself; at Northern College in Timmins, Ont., the ratio was 8.6. Alpha College is at about 4.5-to-1 compared with St. Lawrence College's home-campus enrolment, or more than twice the allowed ratio.
"The focus has been numbers-driven," Blaney said. "That's all, literally, that anyone cares about … how many international students can we pack in, and how much money can we get."
A Ministry of Colleges and Universities spokesperson told The Fifth Estate that colleges "are separate legal entities and are responsible for both academic and administrative matters — including enrolment and capacity."
Neither Alpha College nor its public partner, St. Lawrence College, would agree to an interview.
In an email this week, St. Lawrence spokesperson Julie Einarson said the school and Alpha College have "established and followed quality assurance protocols to ensure students who come to Ontario to study have a good experience and ultimately stay here to live and work."
"Colleges and our partners provide a wide range of support services to international students but we know there is a lot more to do," the email continued. "We are working collaboratively with other colleges, governments, and community leaders — and most importantly, our students — to find new solutions."
Low-wage jobs after graduation
Federal Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said it troubles him greatly that "certain private career colleges, I'm convinced, have come to exist just to make a buck on the back of the international student program."
In an interview with The Fifth Estate last week, he said, "We have concerns that it might be about financial impropriety, rather than providing a quality education to students who are coming here trying to better themselves."
Fraser said if certain recruiters or colleges are taking advantage of students, then he needs to make it clear to the appropriate provincial government that they don't need his permission to oust the college from the study permit program.
"It's not what the program was designed for. It's designed to provide an education to students and to benefit Canadian communities, not to allow sham operations to open up to financially abuse innocent students who have in their mind what Canada could be, only to be let down."