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Brampton: Canada’s international education city looks to solve challenges

Manil is a student from Sri Lanka in Brampton, Ontario, a city adjacent to Toronto, Canada’s largest metropolis. Since arriving in the country last year, he has struggled to find a part-time job to cover his $17,000 tuition fee and living expenses.

Photo: wikimedia

In 2022, Sheridan and the City of Brampton co-hosted a two-day summit to address the challenges facing students

After months of searching, he finally secured employment as a cook at a golf club. However, to get there he has to travel two hours by bus each way. “There are a lot of students suffering but people don’t talk about it,” he tells The PIE News.

In most communities across Canada, post-secondary institutions only focus on delivering classes to international students. These newcomers are offered little support in looking for housing, finding employment and adapting to a new culture.

“There are a lot of students suffering but people don’t talk about it”

However, in Brampton a group of educators, city councillors, settlement and community service agencies and other supporters are working to change that.

More than 600,000 people live in Brampton. The city is part of Peel Region, which is home to 80 post-secondary educational institutions. Sheridan College, which is publicly funded, is one of the leading providers of international education. Algoma University, a public university based in northern Ontario, has established a campus in the city to tap into both the international market and the huge pool of domestic students in the Toronto area. In addition, Toronto Metropolitan University has a campus there.

In total, more than 20,000 international students live in Brampton, with the majority coming from just one country – India.

Many of Brampton’s post-secondary institutions are private career colleges, catering to international students and immigrants who are looking for a short course to give them Canadian credentials in the competitive job market. As for-profit schools, these institutions don’t focus on the additional services that international students may need.

And those needs are extensive. In 2021, several social services agencies in the community issued a report called Invited and Forgotten. It pointed to housing as a key issue facing students, with soaring rents and poor quality of accommodations. Students are vulnerable to being exploited by landlords and don’t know where to turn, the study found.

In addition, it raised the issues of a shortage of employment opportunities, mental and physical health, food security, racism and trouble adjusting to a new culture.

To its credit, Sheridan College is leading the way in helping international students in Brampton – even if they don’t attend Sheridan. In 2022, Sheridan and the City of Brampton co-hosted a two-day summit to address the challenges facing students.

The summit brought together educational institutions, social service agencies, city officials, the police and fire departments, religious groups and more. It also included local funeral homes, which have sadly had to deal with the deaths of international students through suicides and accidents. More than 250 people attended the event, with a further 600 online.

As a result of the summit, the group created the Brampton Charter to enhance the lives of international students. It includes a statement of principles that reflect the fact that international students face challenges that may be different from their domestic counterparts. It calls for everyone to recognise that the international student experience encompasses physical, mental, social, financial and cultural wellbeing.

The charter sets out goals that post-secondary institutions should work to achieve, sometimes in conjunction with other organisations.

These include: upholding ethical recruitment standards and practices; creating academic and wrap-around supports for learners; promoting safe and affordable housing and financial stability; providing opportunities for legal and reliable work; and championing well-defined and transparent pathways to citizenship for international students.

Sheridan has moved forward with several initiatives, including hiring a sexual health nurse and a housing coordinator. For students who are short on money, the college has organised food hampers and provides winter clothes and boots.

Getting Brampton’s private career colleges on board will be tougher. Many are too small to be able to offer comprehensive services to their international students. And for-profit institutions may be reluctant to spend on expanded supports.

At Sheridan, one of the key initiatives is to manage expectations, with agents in India often promoting Canada as a land of milk and honey. In fact, many students struggle to cope with school, work and family challenges.

Sheridan has organised pre-departure sessions online to give students realistic expectations about what Canada is like. When students arrive at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, Sheridan has a welcome booth to greet them and assist them in transitioning to a new country.

These supports continue all the way through graduation to cover employment and immigration, if the student chooses to remain in Canada.

Sheridan has also partnered with the fire department to go door-to-door to talk to international students about fire safety and offer free smoke detectors. Again, this service is for everyone, not just those who attend Sheridan.

“The city was concerned that landlords were charging $900 for a student who got a mattress on the floor”

Rowena Santos is a city councillor who represented the municipality at the summit and serves on an international student task force.

“The city was concerned that landlords were charging $900 for a student who got a mattress on the floor and had to share a small apartment with several other students,” Santos tells The PIE News.

After some strong debate, Brampton city council passed a motion to take action to offer greater protection for international students. It endorsed the Brampton Charter and plans to implement a licensing system for landlords starting in 2024. It would include random inspections of properties to ensure that landlords are following the rules – or their license will be revoked.

In addition, Santos wants action from both the federal and provincial governments. Ottawa controls the issuance of study permits and she would like the government to consider a cap based on the number of international students based on what cities across the country can handle.

Ontario is responsible for education and Santos says the province must do more.

“While the public post-secondary institutions are doing a good job, the private colleges are completely unregulated. There is a need for regulation and accountability. Some offer students support but there are others that leave international students high and dry,” she explains.

The Brampton Charter is just the beginning of a much-needed effort to provide the supports international students need to thrive in Canada. A lot more work must be done. But it’s a great start and post-secondary institutions across Canada – and their local communities – would be wise to have a look and see how they can adapt these principles and goals.

As for Manil, he is still hoping that his Canadian journey will work out. He has three children and a spouse back in Sri Lanka and would like to bring them to Canada to be with him and start a new life. However, he will need a job in his field to gain the necessary work experience to apply for status as a permanent resident.

It’s difficult to find employment related to his studies. “I don’t recommend anyone coming to Canada because of the job situation,” he says. He plans to tough it out for the next year and then see what happens to his Canadian dream.

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