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Ottawa will shut down shady post-secondary institutions if provinces don't: Miller

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OTTAWA -

Ottawa is ready to step in and shut down shady schools that are abusing the international student program if provinces don't crack down, Immigration Minister Marc Miller warned Tuesday.

Miller said there are problems across the college sector, but some of the worst offenders are private institutions — and those schools need to go.

"There's responsibility to go around," Miller said on Parliament Hill ahead of the weekly cabinet meeting. "I just think that some of the really, really bad actors are in the private sphere and those need to be shut down."

Provinces are responsible for addressing problems in the post-secondary sector with regards to international students, he said. But if they won't do it, Ottawa will — although "jurisdictional questions" limit the government's power.

A sharp rise in foreign student enrolment has sparked scrutiny of the international student program and prompted the Liberals to put a cap on new study permits for the next two years.

More than 900,000 foreign students had visas to study in Canada last year, which is more than three times the number a decade ago.

Critics have questioned the dramatic spike in international students at shady post-secondary institutions and flagged concerns about some using the program as a back door to permanent residency.

One potential fix, Miller said, is the federal government's plan to recognize post-secondary institutions that have higher standards for services, supports and outcomes for international students.

"The recognized institution model that we launched in the fall still is very pertinent to this discussion, because we will be able to separate the wheat from the chaff," he said.

"And perhaps even — if provinces don't assume their responsibility — shut down institutions ourselves if they don't do a good enough job."

Following Miller's comments, the CEO of the National Association of Career Colleges said his organization supports the federal government's efforts to rein in international student numbers, but he pushed back on the criticism directed at private colleges.

"(Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada) statistics are clear: regulated career colleges overwhelmingly train Canadian learners and NACC member institutions account for less than five per cent of all study permits in 2023. We are not the problem," said Michael Sangster in a statement.

In addition to private colleges, Miller also called out schools that have seen spikes in asylum claims from international students.

Asylum claims from international students at Seneca College increased from 300 in 2022 to almost 700 in 2023. At Conestoga College, claims jumped from 106 to 450 during that same period.

Miller called those increases "alarming" and "totally unacceptable."

The Ontario government has voiced its displeasure with the federal government's decision to put a cap on international student enrolment.

On Friday, Premier Doug Ford said Ottawa blindsided the province with the move, which he likened to taking "a sledgehammer to the whole system."

Miller pushed back on Ontario's critique on Tuesday, saying it was "complete garbage" and that he had warned the province it needed to get a handle on the influx of international students.

The Ontario government announced on Monday it is putting an additional $1.3 billion over three years toward post-secondary institutions increasingly struggling with finances in the face of low provincial funding, frozen tuition fees and now a cap on international student enrolments.

Colleges and universities said it does not come close to sustaining the sector.

A government-commissioned expert panel and Ontario's auditor general have noted that low levels of provincial support over several years, combined with a 2019 tuition fee cut and freeze, are a large part of the reason institutions have turned increasingly to international student tuition fees — which are much higher than what domestic students pay — to stay afloat.

Ontario ranks last in every comparison of interprovincial post-secondary financing, according to a report last year by Higher Education Strategy Associates.

International students now give more money to Ontario's institutions than the government does, the report said. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 27, 2024.

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