Jordan: The school year is currently a couple of months old, and unless something drastic has changed, there are a whole lot of college and university students who are flunking right now.
And yes, some of them are failing for the usual reasons, but a lot of them. Aren’t international students arrive every semester to get their postsecondary education in Canada, and they pay a lot of money to do so.
But sometimes they simply shouldn’t be there. Some of them simply don’t have the skills or the language needed to Excel, and that is not a knock on them. It’s a knock on a system that is in its current state for a lot of reasons, but of those reasons to better serve foreign students in achieving a meaningful education in Canada.
It doesn’t always seem to be high. So why not? What is wrong with the international student system and who is to blame and what would a functional version of that look like? I’m Jordan
Heath Rawlings, and this is the big story. The series is called price of admission. This is a project from the Toronto star and the Saint Catherine standard, led by Nicholas Kune, Isabel T Antonio, and Grant LeFleche and Grant joins us now from St Catherine’s.
Grant: Hey, how you doing?
Jordan: I’m doing well. Why don’t you start, uh, just to sort of set the table for us by quickly defining, uh, what an international student is for the purposes of your project.
Grant: Sure. So an international student, and for us, we’re specifically looking at students attending Ontario colleges.
A is somebody who resides in another country. Who wants to come to Canada to, for a postsecondary education. And one of the things that is, uh, of interest to us or was of interest to us was that a postsecondary education in Canada is not just about getting a degree or a diploma. It is also a pathway to permanent Canadian residency.
So for many of these students, it was It was more than just getting an education. It was the first step and trying to build a new life in Canada.
Jordan: And what is it about that process that attracted your attention and led to this story
Grant: Specifically for me, I had been investigating what had been happening in Niagara college, uh, for about, uh, four months, which was that there were hundreds of students from India, mostly Punjabi speaking students.
Who could not function in the classroom and Niagara college in English. So they weren’t able to at an academic level, read, write, or converse in English. And it was particularly perplexing because all international students have to pass a standardized English admission tests. So you have to have English skills at a certain level to be able to attend Canadian schools.
Uh, and these students, uh, clearly could not, and it caused a crisis on their college campus mass retesting of these students and a lot of questions as to how it happened in the first place. Quite independent from me, Nicholas and Isabel as the Toronto star. We’re looking at a much broader picture there.
We’re looking at the number of students who were attending Canadian colleges. Uh, how many were in Ontario? What countries were they from? There were other issues on the immigration side that they were looking at. And I had got wind that they were, they were doing this. So I had reached out to them and said, you have a piece of this.
I have a piece of this. Let’s, uh, you know, combine our forces and see what we muck with. And, and that was sort of how we were able to paint this very, very comprehensive and big pictures of what was happening in Ontario colleges.
Jordan: What does that big picture look like? How many international students are at Ontario colleges and is the number growing.
Grant: The number is substantially growing and, and if you want to get a sense as to, you know, what that picture looks like, you just need to look at the dollar figure because, uh, Ontario colleges are increasingly reliant on the, the tuition fee. It’s from international students in order to run their colleges.
Um, international students pay, uh, up to three times what a domestic student pays in, in terms of tuition fees. And so the colleges are making hundreds of millions of dollars on international students. At the same time, domestic enrollment is a declining sort of piecemeal. It’s declining.
International students are rising, so you see. Many colleges. I’m putting a lot of energy into international recruitment because this is where, I mean, if you took away international students from them, I’m not sure whether these colleges could, could operate. Um, in some cases it’s almost half of their revenue now comes from international students.
Complicating this picture a little bit is that international students, as per our reporting and our price of admission series, have also become a temporary international workforce in Canada. So when these students arrive in Canada, they’re not just going to class. When you and I went to university or college, you know, we went to class, our entire focus, generally speaking, was on our schoolwork and life on campus.
You might have a part time job, but it’s usually, that’s a secondary concern. The first thing these students do when they land in Canada is they have to, um, get a job because they have. Bankrupted themselves in many cases just to come here. They, in the case of the Indian students that I was looking at as an example, um, they have to pay somewhere in the neighborhood of $30,000 before they arrive on Canadian shores for a single semester.
Attending a Canadian college. So when they get here, they have sold all of their belongings. Um, if they have families with property or savings, those have been sold or drained, uh, and they have to get jobs immediately or they won’t be able to attend school. So one of the major themes that we, we were able to come across was everybody is kind of making money off of international students.
The, the international, uh, college programs are making students or making money rather. There are employers of course, are, are making money in some sense. Um, they have to pay fees to the government to be able to come here in health insurance and so on. Um, so this is a very large money-making operation in this province.
And then it raises the secondary question, which is are the students getting the education they’re paying for? And there were a lot of stories that led us to conclude that in many cases, the answer to that was no.
Jordan: Well, that was going to be my next question is what kind of scenarios does that lead to on the ground and what did you find?
Grant: So it, the way it’s supposed to work is a student would pass there English tests they would have, they would prove they have the financial ability to come to Canada to study here and pay these high fees. And then they would go through their college education and there’s a point system for the, for immigration.
So by going to college, you would accrue a certain number of points to get a work permit. And from there you can begin directing yourself toward permanent residency. What we found in many cases, particularly with students from the Punjab area of India, it was a, they couldn’t read or. Right English.
Ah, very well. They were in some cases, being taken advantage of by employers. One student, for instance, told us that he and another Indian student, when they arrived in Toronto, were told by an employer they could work in a warehouse. And what he would do is he’d pay them a combined 350 hours a week.
One student could work, you know, sort of seven till five, and then the other student could work, you know, five to 11 or something. So worked out to less than, you know, half of minimum wage, four for each of them, but on the ground in the colleges, what this was, what was happening was you had hundreds, perhaps even thousands of students who couldn’t function academically.
You ha, you know, they’re paying a lot of money to get their education and they have no chance to succeed whatsoever. I mean, imagine if you’ve been picked up, you’ve spent your life savings to go to school in India and you don’t speak a word of, of, of Hindi or Punjabi. How well are you going to be able to function in that environment?
And there was no going back for these students, which is, which is the additional pressure so much, um, of their, and their family’s resources have been spent bringing these students to Canada and, and going to an Ontario college that if they fail. There is no reasonable chance for them to go back.
I mean, there’s sort of, you know, they’ve burned their ships. There’s no way for them to go back and here they are in a situation where they don’t speak the language, they’re failing in school, and they’re being taken advantage of by employers in some cases. What kind of a future do they have and what kind of education are they reasonably getting?
And they’re really not in, in those cases.
Jordan: What kind of safeguards or processes exist to sort of prevent those worst case scenarios that you just described from happening?
Grant: Um, we really found none. A lot of the onus gets placed on the colleges themselves. The education in this country is a provincial responsibility. So it’s the Ontario a government that’s responsible for this.
The federal ministry of immigration is to the province. You designate schools. As those that can take international students so that, you know, which is all of Ontario colleges, uh, publicly funded colleges become these official institutions where you can, students can come and that can put them on the path to permanent residency.
It’s up to the colleges to kind of, to determine if these students are even able to function in the environment. The college hasn’t turned say, well, we rely on these English tests, right. To determine whether or not these students and attend and if they pass the test. Then they get a green light.
Uh, and what we found in our reporting and is w, you know, talking to students sometimes through a translator, sometimes times the few that can speak English well enough to, to converse as well as talking to reporters in India and looking at the situation on the ground there that many of those tests or, you know, a portion of them may in fact not be legitimate and that there is deep concern.
That there’s a tremendous amount of fraud happening, uh, that exams are being purchased. For example, scores are being purchased. So when the students come here, they’re, they’re coming with a passing grade that is in fact faked.
Jordan: And when you kind of took that to the university, lets use your, your story, uh, at Niagara college just in particular.
Ah, when you take it to them and say. You know, these kids clearly can’t speak English. You know, they can’t. What’s happened here? What are you going to do about it? What happens?
Grant: Uh, a couple of things happened and it actually caused a ripple effect across, onto all the Ontario college system.
Never college responded first by trying to tap down the extent of the problem. Uh, they insist that there is no crisis. That this is just what happens when you have international students. Uh, but we are talking about hundreds of students who failed. Uh, they continue to rely on the credibility of the English, uh, the, the standardized English scores.
I, even though the, what we have found raises a number of questions of, uh, the validity of those tests. And in fact, what the college ended up doing was a long run with a retesting all of their students from Punjabi, or at least those who had been identified, which again, was well over 400 students, a freshmen in 2018.
And now they have actually drastically curtailed the number of students they’re taking from the Punjab region of India. Um, which I guess for context I should explain, is a poor region of India. Um, the largely agricultural, it’s, it’s quite impoverished. So for these students to come here, uh, is really their families opportunity to try to build a better life for themselves.
But the college has not actually acknowledged, and they, they simply will say they have no evidence of fraud, so they don’t take it seriously. At least they’re saying publicly. We have spoken, however, to students who will tell us not only how much it costs to take the test in the illegitimately, but how much they’re, you know, they were offered to pay to have a fake exam bought for them.
It is telling perhaps that. Yeah. A school like Niagara college is now just reducing the number of students it’s taking, taking from India. There on the record, explanation is to say, well, we just want to have a more diverse student body. We don’t want any one country to dominate our international enrollment.
But in practical terms, the students who are at the heart of this crisis came from the Punjabi region of India. They weren’t coming from anywhere else. So part of the solution seems to have been to simply shut that tap off or try to.
Jordan: I mean, I don’t want to ask about them or use you to speak for them as a block, but how did the students, are they, when do they feel like they’re getting any value out of this process?
Because obviously they’re, they’re still coming in in droves.
Grant: It’s, you know, the, the opinions are diverse and it depends on the specific circumstances. So, um, some students will say, this is just. The system. This is just the way it is, and I’m here for a particular purpose, so I’m jumping through these hoops.
We had one student say, if he can at the end of the day, you know, get his college diploma, do well enough in school to get the points he needs to get his work permit and move on through the immigration process and eventually become a permanent resident and a productive member of Canadian society.
You know, all of this, all these other issues that we’ve mentioned, if he survived those. Then he will wear that as kind of his red badge of courage that, you know, he’s overcome all of these problems. Um, but other students absolutely feel exploited. Um, others, you know, one student in particular told us that everything he had been told about coming to Canada.
A is the exact opposite. There’s a, uh, Botel in, in Niagara falls, where in, because the students don’t have money, they can’t afford to live in a typical student resident. So there is a motel that has a lot of these Indian students that living and they’re paying a fraction of what they might pay elsewhere.
And you know, they’re not seeing the view of Niagara that you see in the college marketing and to go. You know, sort of the, the rush of Niagara falls or the beautiful vineyards, it’s, you know, kind of a dusty street Lundy’s lane outside the tourist district in a, in a typical motel where they’re living anywhere from, from Tuta to four people in a single motel room.
Um, and then there’s the academic pressure. Uh, they struggle immensely when the crisis hit. And I went to campus and I went to the international student center where these students were having a tremendous problem. And the college at this point is trying to retest them. And one of the solutions I didn’t mention before was that what they were trying to do was to take you as a student who is struggling and essentially puts you in an English as a second language course, and they would move your tuition and your fees over to that.
But the students were rejecting that principally because that course wouldn’t get them. Um, it would basically, it would delay their studies and that course would not get them the points they needed to move toward permanent residency. They had to graduate from the courses they had enrolled in initially.
So they were saying to their teachers, it pleading in the hallways, I’ll try harder, I’ll try harder. And the teachers would say to them, listen, there’s, there’s just no way you’re going to pass this course. And at the end of the day, only 10% of these students took the college up on, on this ESL option because to delay would mean more time and more money in school, which they couldn’t afford.
So they just tried their best to do it. One of the consequences of that, uh, has been that when they got through that first semester and there was the crisis on campus, those students are still enrolled in the college, but they stopped coming to class. And where some of them have gone at this point is an open question.
Jordan: What kind of rights and services are available to the students who do end up feeling like they’ve been sold a bill of goods, essentially, that they’re not getting what they paid for, that they’ve ended up here and have no way back.
Grant: Uh, you know, I mean, there are, there are some recourses for them to, um, to turn to.
However, you know, one of the groups we spoke to was the, um, migrant workers Alliance, which has, you know, they typically have represented, you know, migrant workers in, in Canada, the agricultural. Um. A sector, a, for instance, there’s a lot of migrant workers that work in Niagara’s vineyards.
Uh, they also work in, in, in farms across the country, and they’ve begun to reach out and organize these international students. Um, because, you know, they, first of all, students don’t, the students are often not told what, what their rights are. So, uh, there are a couple of students that we spoke to, um, from.
Other parts of the world who, you know, arrived with their husbands or spouses and their spouses may have got a work permit. So they were available. They were now eligible for OHIP partner, who was the student then paid an extra $800 for a medical insurance was they’re told they have to pay. To attend school here, not realizing and not being told, for instance, that because they’re married to somebody who’s covered under OHIP, they’re also covered under OHIP, so I didn’t need to spend all that extra money, you know, to be fair to the colleges, they do provide some degree of counseling and mental health services, albeit in a limited fashion.
But because of the language barrier, students don’t often realize they can go get that help. Um, they don’t really have, uh, translators available on a, on a regular basis so that those students, those services can be effective. Yeah. So it’s a real problem. These, these students sort of exist, uh, in often cases in this limbo, in this gray area where they feel trapped because they’re very focused on getting their permanent residency and the kinds of services that a domestic student would just know to get to or could find very easily, may be there, but they have no way.
to find them then because there’s no way to inform them of it either.
Jordan: Before you guys dug into this, or maybe since your series was published. Do we know if anyone in government particularly, but I guess elsewhere as well, is addressing the big picture problem that you’ve just laid out, that this could be happening all over the province, that there’s no system in place really.
Uh, and, and is anything on the move.
Grant: Well, we did have an interview with the federal minister of immigration and he, he, in many cases, he just simply passed the buck onto the province. He did point out that, uh, for instance, the colleges are required to take enrollment. So if students aren’t coming to class, um, which is the whole, there’s, there’s their study permit requires them to, then they can be deported.
Um, he, he did talk about, you know, that the government expects that these institutions, um, provide the necessary services and education to these students. But he stopped short of saying that the federal government would intervene because again, it’s a provincial issue that his parental counterpart really didn’t acknowledge that there was a significant issue.
Happening. So the only kind of thing that has happened is that there seems to be a reduction in accepting student visas from India, which is where, you know, the heart of a lot of that problem, um, had stemmed from. But beyond that, that, you know, there was a real defense of the system saying this was great.
You know, because we do need, in Canada, immigration is, is sort of an important. Right? Um, plank for our economy. We need more workers. We need people to come to this country, to become part of our society, to become part of our workforce. So largely, officially in government, this is a defense of the system.
Um, and groups like the worker’s Alliance are pushing, for instance. For permanent residency, essentially to be IP, you become a student, you are immediately granted access to our social services and our, you know, uh, employment insurance and health care and that kind of thing immediately. Uh, but it remains to be seen whether or not that’s something that will be taken up by any level of government in, in a serious fashion.
And in the meantime, there is still the, a students who have kind of walked away from the program and we don’t know where they are.
Yeah, I mean, that’s exactly, and, and so if those students haven’t come to class and the college enrollment shows, they haven’t, then they’re at risk of, uh, being sent home.
The concern that many of the teachers that we spoke to have is that these students have effectively gone underground. So they may go to a city that has, you know, a very large, a Punjabi speaking. A community, places like Brampton where you know, they are already, you know, students in Niagara, for instance, travel to Brampton and weekends to get part time work.
Um, maybe they’re disappearing into that community and if it’s, and unfortunately, if that’s what’s happening, those students are even more open to exploitation than they were before. And, uh, trying to figure out where these students are and what become of them, uh, is something that, that, you know, we’re trying to piece together, but certainly it’s something that concerns the teachers who have said to us, they stay awake at night and they go home crying because they don’t know how to help these kids.
Jordan: Well, thank you for helping us dig into it a little bit today and maybe we’ll talk to you later or whatnot, when there’s some more movement on one.
Grant: Absolutely. Thanks for the time. I appreciate it.
Jordan: Grant LeFleche is an investigative reporter at the St Catherine’s standard, and that was the big story.
If you’d like more big stories, they are at the aptly named thebigstorypodcast.ca. If you’d like to hear my new podcast as well as everybody here at Frequency who worked on it, it’s called The Gravy Train and you can find it at the also aptly named, thegravytrainpodcast.com. Tell us what you think of both of these on Twitter.
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Ryan Clarke and Stefanie Phillips are our associate producers. Annalise Nielsen is our digital editor, and I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, have a great weekend, and we’ll talk Monday.
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