‘We have a system that has lost its integrity’: Canada moves to reform its international student program

Posted on October 30, 2023 in Education Delivery System

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TheStar.com – News/Canada
October 27, 2023.   By Nicholas Keung Immigration Reporter

Immigration minister says he has no intention of putting a cap on the international students Canada is bringing in

More reforms to the post-graduation work-permit program will also be introduced to ensure it meet the needs of the Canadian labour market, as well as regional and Francophone immigration goals, Immigration Minister Marc Miller said Friday.

“The use of fraudulent admissions letters has been a major concern for my department this year and continues to pose a serious threat to the integrity of our student program,” he told reporters.

“We have a system that has lost its integrity and is subject to some of the worst aspects of fraud.”

However, Miller said he has no intention to put a cap on the international students Canada is bringing in, and that it requires the governments and the post-secondary sector to do their parts to ensure “responsible growth.”

Currently, students’ admission letters are reviewed by an immigration officer on an individual basis and not automatically. Miller said the new verification requirement, along with the other reforms, will help strengthen the program and better protect genuine students from fraud.

“Our goal here is to punish the bad actors, make sure that they are held accountable, and reward the good actors who provide adequate outcomes for the success of international students,” Miller said. “The institutions that are recognized could benefit from, for example, faster student permit application processing.”

It’s not known what the exact criteria will be for the vetting of trusted schools, but he said it will include an institution’s ability to support international students, such as with their mental health needs, and to provide adequate physical infrastructure, such as housing.

The international student program has been under immense scrutiny in the past few years, criticized by observers as a cash cow for the financially strapped post-secondary sector and a scam billed by unscrupulous agents as a shortcut for permanent residence in Canada.

These students pay as much as four times the tuition of their domestic counterparts, to help fill classroom seats and, in doing so, keep courses open for domestic students who otherwise would have fewer options.

International students, through their spending and tuition, contribute $22 billion to the Canadian economy and support 200,000 jobs in the country. The number of study permit holders in Canada has tripled in the past decade, from 300,000 in 2013 to 900,000 this year.

However, a growing number of students have complained about abuse and exploitation by employers and landlords and that the experience in Canada has not lived up to their expectations.

They have also reported financial hardship and mental health issues, because they rely on their employment in Canada to support themselves and their families back home, who sometimes have to sell their lands or take on loans to support students’ education here.

Miller blamed the problems in part on the chronic underfunding of post-secondary education by provinces and singled out the partnerships between public and private colleges that allow private colleges to deliver public college programs at a fee, contributing to a Wild-West-type landscape.

These concerns, he said, were highlighted in a 2021 Ontario auditor general report that identified issues with enrolment requirements, quality assurance and student support processes under these lucrative partnerships.

“The worst of the private colleges are the storefront, fly-by-night operation, and they’re really dashing people’s hopes in this country. And those need to be shut down,” said Miller, adding that education is outside of the federal jurisdiction and it takes provincial leadership to address these problems.

“What we are seeing in the ecosystem is one that has been chasing after short-term gain without looking at the long-term pain. And we need to reverse that trend.”

A spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities did not respond to Miller’s criticisms, but said the province will continue to work with other partners to identify ways to support and enhance students’ learning experiences and labour market outcomes.

Sarom Rho of Migrant Students United, a national advocacy group, welcomed the changes but said these are just first steps and it remains to be seen whether the system is going to be able to screen out the bad actors.

Neither did the announcement address the need to rein in the lucrative student-recruitment industry contracted by schools to bring in students, nor making post-graduation work permits renewable to protect students from falling through the cracks and losing status, she said.

“Migrant student workers should not be caught in a carrot-and-stick system, where they are denied the ability to protect themselves,” Rho said.

Colleges Ontario, which represents all of the province’s 24 public colleges, said its members have been doing their due diligence to support international students, including the launch of sector-wide standards for international education this year. Those include clear requirements for the marketing of programs, assistance available to students, training for recruitment agents and a third-party audit.

A new program has been developed to let immigration and border officials to quickly authenticate international students’ offer letters and payment status in real time. It’s currently used at 12 public colleges. Since October, there have been more than 73,000 requests for verification.

“We’re very pleased to support the new measures announced today to further protect international students,” said Colleges Ontario president and CEO Marketa Evans.

Colleges and Institutes Canada, the largest national post-secondary advocacy group, also welcomed the announcement, saying in a statement that the changes align with its members’ commitment to ensure international students’ success on campus and in the country.

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star. 


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