Education export: an industry in dire need of a babysitter

Canada’s export education sector has experienced significant growth in recent years. The federal government has recently completed consultations towards the development of Canada’s third International Education Strategy, coinciding with broader consultations about the future of Canada’s immigration system. Significant changes to Canada’s International Student Program (ISP) are expected in the coming year.

Canada’s education export growth has been unmatched in recent years, but these accomplishments may also be its Achilles’ heel.

Some of its competitor countries have proceeded with more modest growth, while developing and enhancing their policy and regulatory frameworks to ensure sustainability. Canada’s current approach is highly susceptible to unwanted behaviours and future deflation if student expectations don’t match student experiences.

For a number of years, the international education sector has contributed more than CA$20 billion (US$14.6 billion) to the Canadian economy, supporting approximately 170,000 jobs. This roughly equates to the size and value of Canada’s aerospace industry.

However, while there are a plethora of federal regulations impacting the aerospace sector, only a handful impact an international student’s immigration process, and zero federal regulations govern international student recruitment.

Canada now appears ready to reconsider some of the sector-wide issues and its current highly unregulated approach. Whether the new policy initiatives will lead to a sustainable path forward, or allow the status quo to flourish, remains to be seen. However, this may be the federal government’s last chance to act before irreparable harm is perpetuated on Brand Canada.

Brand Canada: Advantages and challenges

Brand Canada has been recognised as the main value proposition by which to lay the foundation for Canada’s education export. Selling international education abroad has come with automatic advantage, based on positive perceptions of Canada, including the standards and values Canada represents.

This country brand advantage should not be considered unique to educational exports, but rather it is an advantage to many areas of Canada’s trade and investment. Mechanisms ensuring the quality of products and services are important.

In recent years, a number of occasions have been reported where Canada’s ISP has not been measuring up to the standards international students have been led to expect.

A lack of housing means that some international students haven’t been able to secure safe accommodation.

Other areas of concern include issues such as international student dependency on food banks and even much darker concerns about illicit drug use, prostitution and even suicide.

Furthermore, some education providers seem to have been poorly prepared to accommodate the sharp growth in student numbers. Provincial government authorities have not taken sufficient action despite concerns on record that some offerings are likely to be deficient in terms of facilities, academic delivery or student support.

The quality of education received has been called into question by recent government oversight audits. For instance, in 2021 in Ontario the auditor general expressed concerns about the processes used to validate whether private colleges are providing quality education. In this context, concerns related to Brand Canada deflation can no longer be considered blown out of proportion.

Band aid solution or brand reboot?

Amidst growing media reports highlighting foul play in Ontario’s international education sector, a registered lobby group, Colleges Ontario, assembled college presidents province-wide to lay out a ‘Standards of Practice’.

However, it is unclear to what extent this type of self-regulatory approach will lead to any significant improvements. For instance, the institution with the largest international student body refused to sign the statement of principles.

Some stakeholders who find the current status quo acceptable or want to see a relaxation of the rules that exist are those who are most likely to be exploiting the gaps in policy and oversight.

For instance, some overseas recruiters are purchasing institutions in Canada and consequently control the full cycle of recruitment, admissions and administration. This may enable alarming business practices, such as producing fake tuition receipts or transcripts for students who have never attended classes.

Some colleges continue to be listed by the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) despite the suspicions that many of their enrolled international students are not actively pursuing their studies. The data received under the Access to Information Act show potential non-compliance rates that are extremely high (89%-100 %).

Practices at public institutions also have concerning aspects if international students’ best interests are considered, such as brazen tuition fee increases, with the cost of tuition sometimes doubling from one intake to the next.

Some institutions also issue up to multiple times the volume of letters of acceptance than they have enrolment capacity for, then rescind them at the last minute or force large volumes of deferrals to intake periods up to two years later.

It is unclear whether, and to what extent, admission standards have been compromised, but the data received under the Freedom of Information Act demonstrate that some institutions issue letters of acceptance to 99% of all international applicants.

The promise of permanence

The draw of skilled, high-paying post-graduation employment opportunities is another example of a Brand Canada promise that has now worn thin.

Offshore-based education agencies run campaigns linking the prospects of international education in Canada to the realisation of wealth and success at a young age, justifying the cost of international tuition fees to new cohorts.

However, there is limited evidence to support these claims, and research points to issues where international graduates often have to accept precarious or low-skilled employment and-or poorer economic outcomes.

Of most grave concern is also Canada’s biggest draw: the prospects of students transitioning to permanent residency. This education-immigration pathway is often marketed openly and routinely abroad, with the standard marketing spiel holding that upon completion of an academic programme and a post-graduation work phase, students will have the opportunity to stay in Canada permanently – as if it was that simple.

For instance, 2022 data obtained under the Access to information Act from IRCC suggests that only about 10% of people transition annually to permanent residency through Canada’s post-graduation work permit programme. While other options exist, these are limited in volume and-or rife with the potential for exploitation.

Is the gig up?

There are some signs that the IRCC is set to take some meaningful action. There can be no doubt that one of the greatest irritants to the federal government, caused by lack of oversight and control, has been the strained resources and resulting immigration processing backlogs caused by a dramatic increase of non-bona fide study permit volumes.

The federal government is the party that has the most to lose. Once Brand Canada is damaged, the value proposition used for education exports becomes untenable. The way the advantages of a positive Brand Canada have filled up classrooms is the same way negative impressions can sink future investment, contracts and collaboration – for generations.

The damage to Brand Canada comes with a real long-term cost that reaches well beyond the international education sector. That is exactly what should be motivating significant federal action now, if protecting the interests of international students is not seen as an equally worthy cause to do so. In the education-export industry, Brand Canada has been without a babysitter for too long.

Earl Blaney is a regulated Canadian immigration consultant who has been an outspoken critic of Canada’s international study policy. Most of his research focuses on exposing concerns associated with inadequate consumer protection standards in Canada’s edu-export industry. Dr Pii-Tuulia Nikula is a principal academic at the Eastern Institute of Technology (Te Pukenga) in New Zealand. Most of Pii-Tuulia’s research focuses on international student recruitment and sustainability questions within the international education sector.