Canada's international student program faced with 'integrity challenges,' senators say in push for reform
A group of Canadian senators is proposing a series of reforms to the country's international student program that include ways of protecting newcomers from fraud and abuse, as well as greater regulations and penalties for recruiters and educational institutions.
Senators Ratna Omidvar, Yuen Pau Woo, Hassan Yussuff and former senator Sabi Marwah – all from the Independent Senators Group – released their report on Wednesday, which they say aims to resolve the "integrity challenges" faced by the program.
"The International Student Program has been a victim of its own success. International students have a strong desire to come to Canada, however, they face many challenges including high tuition fees and abuse. In many cases they do not receive the support they need to overcome these difficulties," Omidvar said in a statement.
"They are also being blamed for the many current economic and social challenges facing Canada, but they are the victims and not the perpetrators. We need to change the program to ensure it works for Canada and the students that contribute so much to our country."
Among the recommendations proposed are a national review of the financial sustainability of Canadian designated learning institutions or DLIs, which are essentially colleges, universities and other institutions approved by provincial and territorial governments to host international students.
The senators also call for greater oversight over DLIs, including private colleges, ensuring there is an adequate supply of accommodations and efforts to inform students about their legal rights around housing, employment and sexual abuse.
LARGE INCREASE IN INTERNATIONAL STUDENT POPULATION
The report says Canada's international student population reached about 807,750 in 2022, a level four times greater than 2008.
The senators tie this to the federal Economic Action Plan in 2011, which included funding for an International Education Strategy that was released in January 2014.
That strategy included a target to double the country's international student population from 239,131 in 2011 to more than 450,000 in 2022. Canada achieved this goal by 2017.
India is the top source country of international students to Canada, followed by China, the Philippines, France, Nigeria, Iran, South Korea, Vietnam, Mexico and the United States.
The report also cites a study from Global Affairs Canada that estimated the contribution by international students to the economy at greater than $22 billion in 2018, while also supporting more than 218,000 jobs.
The report points to a number of issues that international students face, including high and unpredictable tuition hikes made in response to "stagnant" public funding.
It uses the example of Ontario where low provincial funding caused colleges and universities to pass on the costs to international students, who in turn saw their tuition rise as much as 20 per cent in a year. International students, the report says, make up 68 per cent of tuition revenue in Ontario.
DLIs have become overreliant on international students in order to cover expenses, "with little incentive to ensure international and Canadian students are provided with the best experience possible," the report says.
Meanwhile, education agents and consultants can receive between 15 and 20 per cent commission from a Canadian DLI on an international student's first year of tuition, with some negotiating as high as 30 per cent.
Based on this, commissions could range between $1,500 and $7,500 per student, the report says, and institutions only pay out once a student has arrived in Canada and paid their first year's tuition in full.
The senators highlight the prevalence of underground agents or "ghost consultants" who may forge documents, fail to provide services at all and otherwise "prey on the ignorance of international students."
Agents also may refer students to institutions that pay the highest commission but do not necessarily have programs eligible for a post-graduation work permit.
"This means the fate of international students often rests in the hands of the agent, who will provide recommendations based on their own bottom line," the report says.
The report identified cases where agents and private colleges make "empty promises" to students about career prospects, as well as instances where agents lie about post-graduation work permit and immigration eligibility. Some private colleges also have misled students about being able to transfer to a public college and requiring them to pay tuition in full even if they choose to withdraw.
Other issues include unreported cases of sexual abuse, in part due to fears it would affect a student's immigration status, unsuitable housing, problems with employment and the federal government's possible role in "perpetuating an inflated sense of hope among international students motivated to gain permanent residence."
"While the Canadian government is being honest in highlighting the immigration advantages of studying in Canada, it can perhaps do more to be forthright about the highly competitive nature of the permanent residence application process," the report says.
"This challenge is exacerbated by agents and DLIs, who also promote the prospects of becoming a Canadian permanent resident as a means to augment their revenues."