In the face of growing concerns about the treatment of international students in this country, publicly funded colleges in Ontario are bringing in a new set of rules meant to protect those coming from abroad to study. The rules will apply to, among other things, the information and marketing given to prospective students and the training of those recruiting them.
The new standards come as international students have increasingly raised concerns over the Canadian education they’re being sold and the hard financial and employment realities they find upon arriving in Ontario. “There was a real need for greater clarity in the information we give them at the start of the process, when they’re with us and when they leave and have to navigate work permits and all that sort of thing,” Linda Franklin, president and CEO of Colleges Ontario, told the Star. “The motivating factor for us is making sure that our international students are well taken care of.”
The 12-page standards of practice for international education cover different areas — from program marketing and admission; to requiring recruiters to complete a recognized training program; to comprehensive orientation and post-graduation services to assist international students’ settlement. According to the Canadian Bureau for International Education, there were 807,750 international students in Canada at all levels of study last year, up 43 per cent from five years ago. Indian students accounted for 40 per cent of the overall international enrolment, followed by Chinese students, at 12 per cent. More than half of those international students study in Ontario and an increasing number are enrolled in provincial colleges, because their programs are generally cheaper and shorter than universities, which let the students obtain work permits — and potentially permanent residence — sooner. A provincial government audit found international students represented 30 per cent of the total student enrolment of Ontario’s public colleges and that their tuition fees amounted to $1.7 billion and 68 per cent of Ontario public colleges’ total tuition fee revenue in 2020. Twenty-three of the 24 members of Colleges Ontario have signed on to begin the compliance process immediately. All are expected to be compliant with the standards by June 2024 through a review process. Seneca College did not sign on because it’s going to put out something similar for both its domestic and international students, said Franklin. There had been no rules to guide the sector in serving international students. The new protocols help set minimum industry standards and tougher enforcement guidelines. “Some colleges are doing some things better or differently than others. It would be important to standardize that so international students had a really clear sense of what the offering was when they came to Ontario, no matter which door they chose to walk through,” Franklin said. As the international student population grew, she said, it started to attract some unscrupulous recruitment agents who have provided misleading information to prospective students.
“So if they were being directed into programs that didn’t have as clear a labour market outcome as they wanted, that’s a problem. And it’s a problem for Ontario’s economy as well,” Franklin said. “One of the things we wanted to be sure of (was) our agents were well trained as they were representing us on the ground in India particularly, but in every other country that we operate in that students were getting clarity around the offering.” Colleges that signed on to the standards are required to ensure their marketing materials are consistent with the law and not misleading, including “not guaranteeing any academic, immigration or employment outcome,” to help students make informed choices. Administrators must provide accurate information about student responsibilities and student life in Ontario, including the types and cost of accommodation and work opportunities while monitoring the performance of their recruitment agents. Under the new rules, orientation and welcoming initiatives are to be offered to international students both prior to and following arrival, including information about housing and residence options; health, safety and mental well-being; learning assistance resources; immigration pathways and processes; and post-graduation support. An institution is required to terminate contracts with any education agent who has been involved in any “serious, deliberate or ongoing conduct that is false, misleading, deceptive or in breach of the law,” the guidelines said. These standards also extend to private colleges in so-called Public-Private College Partnerships, or PPP, where taxpayer-funded colleges provide curriculum at a fee to private career colleges, which hire their own instructors to deliver the academic programs. Graduates from the for-profit private colleges then get a public college credential. As of June 2021, 11 of the 24 Ontario public colleges were partnered with 12 for-profit private career colleges, with a total of more than 24,000 international students enrolled under these arrangements — up from 14,698 in 2018.
The 2021 provincial audit found that some of these partnerships did not uphold enrolment requirements and that their quality assurance and student support processes could be strengthened. Franklin said it’s important that the private partners are part of the process and being held accountable to ensure international students are welcomed and their interests are protected and well looked after. “There’s a lot of value propositions right now for international students to choose Canada, and we would never want to put any of that at risk by suggesting to them that we are less than any of those things,” she said. “Our brand in the world and the continuation of our standing as a safe, welcoming, great place to be is at stake in all of this. We’re very mindful of that.” “Our brand in the world and the continuation of our standing as a safe, welcoming, great place to be is at stake in all of this. We’re very mindful of that.” The new rules will be incorporated this summer into the existing audit for compliance by the Ontario College Quality Assurance Services, an oversight body of credential validations and quality standards within the sector.