Douglas Todd: Foreign-student dreams being crushed in greedy Canada

Opinion: It’s exploitation of developing nations, a new form of colonialism, says one critic

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The record number of international students in Canada is an “asset that is very lucrative,” according to Immigration Minister Marc Miller.

And he’s not kidding. With Canada’s official foreign student numbers at 800,000, and CIBC bank economist Benjamin Tal informing the Liberal cabinet the actual figure is more like 1.3 million, it’s often boasted people on study visas bring about $30 billion a year into the country.

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Much of that lucre in Canada, put together by wealthy and middle-income families around the world, goes toward more than 1,600 Canadian public and private learning institutions. The rest is funnelled into the wider economy, including the pockets of big-city landlords.

But a prominent Vancouver businessman and educational philanthropist, Barj Dhahan, who works in higher education in both India and Canada, uses the word greedy to describe the organizations and individuals raking in windfall profits from international students.

The co-founder of the Canada India Education Society, which collaborates with the University of B.C. and Punjabi organizations to educate thousands of students and nurses in India, said he hears stories each week from families of foreign students about how Canada is exploiting and even abusing them.

“They come here because they’ve been sold a dream. And their dreams are dashed,” Dhahan said.

Many international student are upset, or even in despair, when they discover Canadian rents are extreme, their schooling is often shoddy, especially in small private schools, tuition fees are four to eight times that of domestic students, decent jobs are hard to get and their chances of becoming Canadian citizens are low.

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Last week, it was learned through access to information that, in 2021, Ottawa’s Immigration Department conducted a survey of 3,700 international students, which found an overwhelming 87 per cent plan to apply for permanent residence in Canada. That’s a spike from 70 per cent in 2020.

Vancouver immigration lawyer and researcher Richard Kurland, who obtained the internal government survey, said there is no way that many aspiring foreign students will be able to obtain coveted citizenship, since there is intense competition for spots.

Given that many families around the planet have literally “bet the farm” to finance their children’s education abroad in hopes they will get immigrant status, Kurland, a frequent adviser to Parliament, believes Canada has a moral obligation to warn of the likelihood of crushed expectations.

Barj Dhahan
“I would say the reputations of our world-class public colleges and universities are being tarnished right now,” says Barj Dhahan, co-founder of the Canada-India Education Society. Public and private Canadian institutions are often demanding “rapacious” and “unjust” tuition fees. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /PNG

The reputation of Canada, and its educational system, is being damaged both here and abroad, says Dhahan, who is also founder of the $45,000 Dhahan Prize for Punjabi Literature and a major contributor to international programs at UBC, Carleton University in Ottawa, and other institutions.

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In addition to questioning the cost and quality of education at Canada’s often-tiny private colleges and language schools, most of which rely almost entirely on foreign nationals, Dhahan is appalled tuition fees for foreign students have soared at many of the country’s large public universities.

Dhahan points, for instance, to how UBC now frequently charges a foreign student seven times more than a domestic student. For instance, one year in UBC’s undergrad arts program costs an international student about $45,000, while the rate is $5,800 for a domestic student. The price tag on other programs can be much higher.

Tuition fees for international students are also exorbitant, he said, at most public and private colleges, where students from India are by far the biggest cohort of international students. Chinese students make up the largest group of international students at universities.

Indian students at colleges
Students from India are by far the biggest cohort at Canadian colleges. Meanwhile, Chinese students make up the largest group at universities. (Source: @HESA_News)

Given that many Canadian universities and colleges don’t want to rely so heavily on foreign students to survive, Dhahan believes taxpayers would be willing to spend more on higher education to support domestic students and protect foreign students from being taken advantage of.

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Dhahan said it’s disturbing that a lot of foreign students whose parents are not rich are being encouraged by immigration consultants here and abroad to sign up for six-month programs at some of Canada’s more than 900 private schools, mainly so they can gain a work permit.

“Canadian governments have no policing resources to monitor how many actually study, or how many stay in Canada beyond the six-month program,” Dhahan said. “There is no determination as to who leaves and who stays.”

Since the vast majority of foreign students want to eventually become Canadian citizens, Dhahan and Kurland say they are vulnerable to victimization by seedy employers.

Some desperate students, according to Dhahan and recent reports, are paying employers kickbacks worth tens of thousands of dollars to fill out a government form called a labour market impact assessment, which allows them to work longer in Canada so they can apply for permanent resident status.

Listening to troubled families and students over the years, Dhahan has also heard many variations on news media reports about landlords taking advantage of foreign students.

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“I would say the reputations of our world-class public colleges and universities are being tarnished right now.” Good quality public institutions are being lumped together with dubious private ones, Dhahan said. And both, he said, are often demanding “rapacious” and “unjust” tuition fees.

In a reference to the West’s past history of colonialism, which often led to the exploitation of the people of developing nations, Dhahan said: “It’s colonization all over again. Just in a different way.”

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