Are Canada's post-secondary schools taking advantage of foreign students?

Daily Brew

A $55-million lawsuit against Ontario’s Niagara College by some of its former international students raises questions about how Canadian educational institutions recruit overseas students and the immigration policies that help sweeten their marketing efforts.

The class action lawsuit, filed earlier this month, claims students lost out on promised three-year Canadian work permits because the college failed to ensure its general arts and sciences diploma program would qualify them under Canadian immigration rules.

Their legal claim says that although the college told them the four-month-long program – coupled with a previous year of Canadian studies and a bachelor’s degree from their home country – would make them eligible, they were denied the permits by Citizenship and Immigration Canada because most of the courses were online and considered “distance learning,” which did not count. The college has so far declined to comment.

"The allegation is Niagara College developed a program designed to create a coveted good," Darcy Merkur, the claimants’ lawyer told the St. Catharines Standard. "And they didn't provide that good, causing irreparable damages …"

Those claims still have to be demonstrated in court. But it’s no secret that post-secondary institutions across the country have benefited from the special status Canada’s immigration system gives to foreign students who graduate from their programs, say immigration lawyers.

It’s also not uncommon for that special status to be used as an enrolment incentive by post-secondary institutions and commission-based recruiting agents when approaching foreign students, who typically pay exponentially higher fees than domestic students do. Tuition charts for Niagara College show international students can be charged $11,400 for a one-year diploma program, compared to $2760 for a student from Canada.

“A lot of the colleges use the immigration program as the carrot to draw people to their programs,” said Guidy Mamann, a Toronto immigration lawyer, adding that often the “end goal” for those students considering Canada is permanent residency.

Meanwhile, “the universities and colleges are dying to get foreign students in because they pay top dollar and those dollars help to subsidize the studies of Canadian students who don’t pay full fare,” Mamann said.

Canada’s “post-graduation work permit program” allows international students who have graduated from an approved Canadian post-secondary institution – generally, universities, colleges and career colleges where the program confers a degree, not a diploma -- to work for up to three years. Those who get at least one year’s worth of Canadian work experience can parlay that into an application for permanent residency.

The government’s own website states the permit, “allows you to gain valuable Canadian work experience after you have completed your studies in Canada. This can help you apply to become a permanent resident in Canada.”

Ravi Jain, another Toronto-based immigration lawyer representing some Niagara College students on appeals of their denied work permits, said “the whole design of it is to attract international students who pay exorbitant fees over their Canadian counterparts. It’s tight – the Ontario government doesn’t have a lot of money these days and many of the provinces are in a similar situation.”

Government numbers suggest the word is out. In 2007, there were just over 9000 work permits issued to post-graduates. In 2013, that number soared to 34,000.

The federal government itself has identified that education is a competitive commodity in a global market that includes other countries as players. A federal strategy document on international education from 2014 (http://international.gc.ca/global-markets-marches-mondiaux/assets/pdfs/overview-apercu-eng.pdf )shows the aim is to use Canada’s competitive advantage to double its current 240,000 international students by 2022 (including researchers and grade school students), with such benefits as the immediate spending students do while they are here, addressing skilled labour shortages and adding to the country’s tax base.

Canadian post-secondary institutions are keen to attract foreign students because their presence enriches their academic programs and internationalizes their campuses, said Jennifer Humphries, a vice-president at the Canadian Bureau for International Education, a not-for-profit group that promotes international education.

“Revenue generation is kind of a second or a third piece of it,” Humphries said.

As for the foreign students themselves, the main attraction to Canada is the excellence of the country’s post-secondary programs, rather than their immigration prospects, say educational representatives.

It’s “a win-win,” situation because international students who return home create networks between Canada and other countries that strengthen Canada’s economic, social and scientific activities, said Amy Dickson, spokeswoman for Colleges Ontario, in an emailed statement.

“Canada’s education is top quality, that’s the first thing we promote and that’s the first thing students tell us,” Humphries said, acknowledging that the post-graduation work permit is also “very popular.”

“It’s been totally taken over by getting as much money as you can out of it, to the detriment of Canadian students, both getting into university and getting jobs afterwards,” said Martin Collacott, a former Canadian ambassador to Asia and the Middle East. He’s been a sometime critic of Canadian immigration policy, addressing parliamentary committees on various immigration issues.

Easy immigration leg up or not, those interviewed agreed the work permit program for international graduates does lead to higher quality immigrants who are more prepared for life in Canada because they already have language skills, education and work experience.

And, since early this year, it is no longer the slam-dunk to permanent residency it once was. That’s because the federal government began using a new application management system that critics say makes it harder for holders of the post-graduation work permit to be accepted as permanent residents. The “express entry,” process now places them in direct competition with other skilled workers, making immigration to Canada as a result of post-secondary education here less of a certainty than it used to be.

“It’s one of the top demographics we have … people who have been messed up by the switch to express entry. That is probably our number one problem area,” Mamann said.