The program from CBC, The Fifth Estate series: Sold a Lie, raises concerns about commercially-driven motivations behind international student recruitment, ethical advising and international student welfare once in the country.
One Punjabi community health worker in Brampton, Ontario, interviewed by the program claimed that there are regular suicides among the Indian student population.
He cited mental health issues and loneliness as problems facing some students – and rampant recruitment is putting the entire ecosystem under strain, the program suggested.
Two teachers explained that some students they teach rent a bed for eight hours and sleep in shifts.
Alpha College, a private college recruiting and teaching via a partnership with St Lawrence College, was at the centre of the documentary – the program revealed that in May, hundreds of students were told their start dates would be deferred to a later date because of capacity constraints.
The students protested – and eventually the college agreed to enrol them as planned.
At the time of publishing, Alpha College and St Lawrence College had not responded to The PIE’s requests for comment about changes in working practices since the student protests earlier this year.
English teaching businesses or agencies in India are also contributing to a problem of assimilation by training students to “pass” English tests, without real speaking skills, claimed the documentary.
And Canadian start-up ApplyBoard is also scrutinised. Its network of 10,000 recruitment partners is contributing to student growth into Canada.
Ravi Lochan Singh, veteran operator in the sector and founder of Global Reach in India, shared concerns in the TV program that many of the agents or recruiter partners sending students to Canada are not effectively regulated.
He has two major concerns, he tells The PIE. “The first is that Canadian colleges have been sold primarily as a way to reach Canada and for those who are solely looking for migration pathway.”
“Education institutions have no oversight on the type of counselling being offered”
And the second: “Another associated concern is that the education institutions have no oversight on the type of counselling being offered,” he explains.
“The counselling agents have often not been contracted by the institution but work through an aggregator. This means that there is absolutely no accountability.”
Speaking to The PIE about the documentary, Meti Basiri, co-founder of ApplyBoard, made clear that ApplyBoard did not work with two colleges singled out: Alpha College and another private college, Cambrian at Hanson, which was strongly endorsed by one agent during some undercover filming.
“Firstly, our hearts go out to each of the students featured in The Fifth Estate episode that aired on October 13, 2022,” he tells The PIE. “As an international student myself, I feel for the many hardships these students have faced.”
ApplyBoard wants to “assure our students, partner institutions and recruitment partners that we have a thorough vetting process in place for the recruitment partners we work with”, he says.
“We understand how critical transparency, accessibility and education is for students. ApplyBoard vets each RP [recruitment partner] who applies to be part of our platform.”
At a national level, Canada “needs to introspect”, says Singh, acknowledging that edtech platforms are “here to stay”.
“Several years ago, the London Statement was signed by several countries around a need for some basic code of conduct when working with commission agents. Canada was one of the countries that attended the meetings but didn’t sign the statement.”
Australia has among the most stringent rules for its education providers. Standard 4 of its ESOS act states, “Registered provider must have a written agreement with each education agent that formally represents their education services”.
Global Affairs Canada did issue a statement to The PIE in light of the program.
“Canada deeply values its people-to-people ties with India, and the significant contribution of Indian students on Canadian campuses and in communities across the country,” said spokesperson, Lama Khodr.
“Global Affairs Canada and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada are in regular contact with the government of India, both in India and through its High Commission and Consulates in Canada, to understand Indian students’ experiences, and work to address recurring issues or refer them to the appropriate authorities.”
Khodr adds that the federal government is in regular touch with provincial and territorial ministries of education, which have jurisdiction over education in Canada, on issues relating to international students.
“We will work with our provincial and territorial counterparts to advocate for ethical recruitment practices abroad.”
Other stakeholders in Canada urged for more regulation of private colleges operating in the country as well as more stringent accountability by providers of their recruitment partners.
Febin Tom, CEO of REG Immigration & Education in Canada (and an attendee of the recent PIE Live North America), says capacity caps may be required.
“My suggestion is to limit the number of students allowed to enrol in a private college,” he tells The PIE. “The government should do an evaluation of the facilities provided at the campus, and how many students the campus can accommodate.
“When we compare a particular program at a private college with a public college there are only two days of class for that program in private colleges, whereas in public colleges there are five days of class for the same program.”
Gautham Kolluri, founder of CIP Study Abroad, also based in Canada, endorsed the points made by Tom, but went further, claiming that some owners or senior operators at private colleges in Canada had commercial links to agencies in India and were therefore commercially benefitting twice over.
“There should be more audits to ensure the quality of public-private partnerships as they are being misused by some stakeholders,” he says.
In the documentary, the program references the Ontario Auditor-General’s report which warned of an over-reliance on international student fees at some public colleges – and flagged that most public-private partnerships had not been subject to an independent quality audit.
Kolluri says the sector should consider the ethics and merits of the scale of sub-agencies recruiting students – especially in India.
“Hundreds of agencies are working with unregulated sub-agents,” Kollari tells The PIE. “International student recruitment is not a multi-level business, subagent recruitment is not Artificial Intelligence.”
Tom agrees: “Now travel agents, and English coaching centres, are recruiting students to colleges through the Edu platforms without having any proper training or experience,” he claims.
The program talks to Immigration minister, Sean Fraser, about the issues raised and asks him where the accountability lies.
“There are certain private career colleges that… just to make a buck on the back of the international student program”
“It’s something that troubles me greatly, there are certain private career colleges that I’m convinced have come to exist, just to make a buck on the back of the international student program,” he tells the interviewer.
Fraser says he wants to make a better job of working with provincial governments to raise alarm bells if issues of education quality come to light. “[Provincial governments] don’t need my permission to de-designate an institution from the program,” he notes.
With private colleges under close scrutiny, however, Michael Sangster, CEO of the National Association of Career Colleges, was at pains to observe that not all private colleges should be treated as one group.
“NACC strongly condemns any institution or agency at any level within the post-secondary education system that takes advantage of its international students,” he cautions.
“Neither college mentioned, the private career college or the community college, in the story is a member of NACC.”
NACC collaborates with all levels of government to ensure that the “highest quality standards” for learners are met at the provincially-regulated career colleges it represents, he continues.
“We welcome all opportunities to partner on programs or initiatives that will help solve the workforce development issues we face in Canada,” he explains, pointing to sectors such as personal care, administration, software development, child and youth care, which suffer from staff shortages.
“Our institutions across the country regularly upskill and retrain tens of thousands of Canadian workers seeking new and better opportunities for themselves and their families.
“Those opportunities are available because regulated career colleges across Canada design their programs to coincide directly with sectors facing high-volume job vacancies.”