Canada’s international student program has “been a victim of its own success” and more needs to be done to counter the abuse and exploitation of students, a group of senators have said.
A new report, released September 20, urges federal, provincial and territorial governments to resolve “integrity challenges” that it says are “rooted in the fiscal challenges of Canada’s post-secondary sector”.
In a press conference, senator for Ontario, Ratna Omidvar, noted that international students are a major asset to Canada, contributing CAN$22bn to the economy and creating 218,000 jobs.
“Canada set out to increase it’s share in the market of international students in 2014, aiming to double its base which at that time was 215,000,” she said.
“This kind of growth does not come with unintended consequences”
“We have far outrun this goal post and currently stand close to 870,000 international students.” Canada’s immigration minister recently said that the country is expecting some 900,000 in the next year.
“This kind of growth does not come with unintended consequences,” Omidvar continued. There are many victims of the success of the program, primarily the students themselves, she said, but also hosting institutions and Canada’s reputation as a leader in global learning.
“The underbelly of abuse that is prevalent in the system threatens its integrity and there have been many reports in the media about physical, emotional, financial and sexual abuse. We have come to the conclusion that the systemic underpinnings of this problem lie with the funding arrangement for post-secondary education.”
Successive governments have cut institution grants to the extent that their only choice now rests with international students “as an essential part of their business plan”, she added.
A recent report from Higher Education Strategy Associates found that 100% of net new funding in the last 10 years has come from international students, which the senator cited.
“The integrity problems of the International Student Program are rooted in the fiscal challenges of Canada’s post-secondary sector, which in turn affect broader issues such as neglect or abuse of students, unaffordable housing, and a backlash against the program itself,” senator Yuen-Pau Woo from British Columbia added.
“The fact that responsibility for these problems rests with multiple levels of government and with different private actors is not a reason to avoid addressing them – urgently.”
Fees have grown “exorbitantly” for international students, recruitment business are “thriving” and private colleges have “proliferated with less oversight from authorities than public institutions”, Omidvar added.
“The incentive to recruit, recruit, recruit has overtaken any incentive to bring learning ready students to Canada and provide them with quality educational experiences,” she said.
Asked whether Canada should introduce a cap on students, Omidvar said any proposals to do so would have a “severe impact on the funding” of higher education. “The right way to go is to provide for a better student experience, [with] more monitoring and more oversight,” she said.
The report recommends that the financial stability of designated learning institutions should be reviewed, greater oversight for institutions including private colleges introduced and the housing supply for international students addressed.
Additionally, international students should be better informed about the legal rights in the country, especially regarding housing, employment and sexual abuse.
“[Together with] the withdrawal of the government from any building of non-market affordable housing, we have the perfect storm,” Omidvar said.
“The blaming of international foreign students for these long-standing structural problems, such as in housing, is a bit like the tail wagging the dog. We really have to ask ourselves whether we are going to leave our post-secondary educational institutions at the mercy of external sources of funding.
“There is no single magic bullet, but we have come together to develop practical solutions.”
She added that Manitoba has set standards for education agents and introduced the requirement – like institutions in Australia – to maintain a list on their websites of agents they work with. In Manitoba, those breaking the rules set out in the 2016 International Education Act can be fined, ranging from $25,000 fines for individuals and $50,000 for corporations.
To promote a “healthier international student program”, federal government should strengthen the Letters of Admission verification process to prevent fraud and reform both the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations to “better regulate the conduct of education agents”, the report states.
“The federal government must immediately strengthen measures to prevent abuse and exploitation”
It also suggests that a national policy strategy on temporary to permanent residency should be developed, which can help to “limit disappointment” among international students whose numbers now exceed the numbers of PR available each year.
Widely disseminating the strategy can help better inform international students that “despite claims they have heard from agents and others, there are only a finite number of permanent residence spots available in Canada”.
A national policy strategy on international student settlement supports would also provide “better care and a more positive experience to international students”, it adds.
“The federal government must immediately strengthen measures to prevent abuse and exploitation of these students, which is unacceptable for a country like Canada to tolerate”, senator Hassan Yussuff added.
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