High study visa refusals: Is the recruitment model to blame?

The high study permit refusal rate for African students seeking to study in Canada can be blamed on increases in the volume of applications as a result of a recruitment model that invites mass applications and, in Africa, often relies on inexperienced downstream recruitment agents, an expert in the field has told University World News.

The high visa refusal trend extends beyond Africa, and is affecting students from other regions of the world, including Asia, Latin America and some parts of Europe in the recent past.

But University World News reported earlier in 2023 that, between 2018 and 30 April 2023, officials at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) rejected 59% of the visa applications from English-speaking Africans and 74% from French-speaking Africans seeking to study in Canada’s colleges and universities.

While racism cannot be ruled out as a reason for the refusal rate, the expert has offered additional potential explanations, saying the refusal rate could be due to the increasingly common aggregator model which entails universities contracting companies to recruit international students.

These companies, in turn, sub-contract agents around the world who are tasked with recruiting as many students as possible. The volume of applications means that, despite high visa refusal rates, good students do manage to ultimately enrol.

However, incompetent and inexperienced agents in Africa, sub-contracted by recruitment companies, were also to blame for wrongly advising students, leading to the mass rejection of applications.

“I do rebut the notion that racism is the leading cause for high permit refusal rates by the IRCC. Examining the data may make an average person think that racism is the reason. However, it is not happening in Africa only, it is an increasing trend globally,” said Earl Blaney of the Canadian study and residency firm Study2Stay.

Aggregator recruitment models

“This is a trend that is not Africa-specific, but rather typical of the impact of aggregator recruitment models,” he added.

It has been witnessed since 2014-15, when volumes of applications from around the world, including Africa, had began growning tremendously, making it harder for the IRCC to handle them in a “competent way”, he explained.

“We have data sets that provide specific details related to what schools and what courses are approved and refused. The data shows very strong correlation between application volume increases and refusal rate increases,” he told University World News in an interview.

As a result, thousands of applications are submitted annually from the sub-agents, of which a large number are not properly completed, or have been completed by students who do not qualify, leading to outright rejection, he noted.

Since the agents have no direct contact with the universities they are recruiting for, they have little knowledge of the programmes and requirements, misadvising students in their applications, he observed. This contributed partly to high refusals of up to 80%.

“Before the aggregator platforms took root, universities and colleges would review the competence of a recruiter but, with the aggregator concept, schools do not know who their sub-agents are. All an agent has to do is be approved by the aggregator,” he observed.

On the other hand, he said, learning institutions at times lie about knowing who the agents are that are recruiting for them abroad, while, in actual fact, they do not, Blaney admitted.

Recruiters in Africa

Blaney noted; “As many as 70% of agents in Africa are new; [they] do not have enough knowledge of the process and the institutions they represent. They lack knowledge to manage the applications and, in the end, have a problem submitting the right data to the IRCC, contributing to higher rejections.

“The bottom line is that, when you look at the Africa data for specific schools recruiting for legitimate programmes in reasonable volumes, you realise that the acceptance rate is higher,” he added.

Africa, he said, is a young, emerging market, unlike a country like India, which is a ‘mature’ market with an acceptance rate of 60%, largely due to the majority of experienced agents, even when they had no direct contact with the universities they recruited for. This was unlike Africa’s main source, Nigeria, which at times experienced very high rejection rates.

At times, he said countries, including those in Africa, suffered low student visa approvals owing to categorisation by Global Affairs Canada, the government organ that oversees the country’s foreign policy, he said.

Blaney explained that, in some cases, the department designates certain countries as potential sources for students, while other countries are categorised as ideal sources of skilled labour, among others, and this affects chances for winning study visas.

Questions remain

While he agrees with some of the points raised by the Canadian, Farook Lalji of Koala Consultants in Nairobi, Kenya, says that Africa’s refusal rate for entry to Canadian universities was unacceptably high, and the reasons, to a large extent, remained a mystery to agents and the victims alike.

Canadian authorities never bothered to explain or in any way communicate with agents to explain reasons for refusal, which happened for students with the same qualifications and documents as the few who get the study visas.

It was also wrong for the authorities to take money from poor students in the form of visa fees while knowing that they would deny the majority of them the permits.

“If the IRCC was placing quotas on students from certain regions or countries, it would be good if it informed agents so that they recruited with the allowed numbers in mind. It is hard to believe that companies such as ours, with 23 years of experience, can have problems filing proper applications for students,” he added.

In addition to the 59% rejection of the visa applications from English-speaking Africans and 74% from French-speaking Africans seeking to study in Canada’s colleges and universities between 2018 and 30 April 2023, in 2022, the disapproval rates were 66% for applicants from French-speaking African countries and 62% for applicants from English-speaking African countries.

Statistics show a massively higher rejection rate for African students compared to students from Western countries. Refusal rates for Great Britain, Australia and the United States were 13%, 13% and 11%, respectively, while, for France, the refusal rate was 6.7%, reported University World News earlier in 2023.

Data by education company ApplyBoard, in 2021 showed that approval for all sources globally stood at 60% in 2019, against that of Africa at 22%.

The data also showed approval rates were even lower for one of the biggest students’ source markets, Nigeria, which was a mere 17.6%, rising marginally to 18% in 2020.

In the meantime, Blaney’s data shows a sharp rise, sometimes of over 1,000% in the number of applications to study in Canada over the past seven years. He believes that the desire to finally settle in Canada and in North America, in general, is a huge motivation to wanting to study in those countries.

Among other things, he recommends that the Canadian government holds an inquiry and conducts further research into the use of education agents, and for the adoption of a 2022 recommendation of the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration on ‘Differential Treatment in Recruitment and Acceptance Rates of Foreign Students in Quebec and the rest of Canada’ which calls for the regulation of recruiters in the international education sector.

“The Canadian government should develop a two-tier international student intake stream. One stream should be available to all students who are interested primarily in the benefits of international study without immigration prospects attached, and another stream that is focused on selecting students and producing graduates for Canadian labour market entry to fill shortages and economic planning goals,” he recommended in a 2022 report titled IRCC Refusal Rates and Study Permit Application Volume: Correlation between Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) refusal rates and study permit application volumes (2018-21) and related concerns.