OTTAWA — The federal government is prepared to crack down on dubious post-secondary institutions that recruit international students if provinces aren't up to the task, Immigration Minister Marc Miller warned Friday.
Miller made the comments as he announced new rules to curb fraud and "bad actors" in the international student program, following an investigation this summer into more than 100 cases involving fake admission letters.
Provinces are responsible for accrediting schools that can accept international students, which include both public universities and colleges as well as private institutions.
In his final months in the role former immigration minister Sean Fraser raised concerns about the number of private colleges in strip malls and other venues that rely on international student tuition, but in some cases offer a meagre education in return.
Several advocacy groups, including the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change have highlighted cases of student exploitation by some of those intuitions.
Miller said Friday the international school program has created an ecosystem that is "rife with perverse incentives," and that is very lucrative for the institutions and for provinces that have underfunded their post-secondary schools,
"The federal government is coming forward and opening its arms to our provincial partners, territorial partners, to make sure we all do our jobs properly," Miller said at a press conference at Sheraton College in Brampton, Ont. Friday.
"If that job can't be done, the federal government is prepared to do it."
The immigration department counted 800,000 active study permits at the end of 2022, a 170 per cent increase over the last decade.
"What we are seeing in the ecosystem is one that has been chasing after short term gain, without looking at the long term pain. And we need to reverse that trend. But it will take time," he said.
Ontario in particular has "challenges" when it comes to the accreditation of post-secondary intuitions, but it is not the only one. Miller did not elaborate on what those specific challenges are.
The Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities did not answer specific questions, but said in a statement the provincial government will "again ask for a meeting with the new federal minister to discuss the planned changes once they've been communicated with ministry."
Sarom Rho, an organizer with the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, said the "fly-by-night colleges" are sometimes partnered with public institutions. But even those can be exploitative, she said.
She said she is working with a group of students who paid tuition up front to one of those intuitions, but were asked for more money just weeks before class enrolment began.
"The school said, 'Well, if you don't have the money, you can go back home, earn some and come back,'" Rho said Friday.
She said the federal government must take up the accreditation of colleges and universities that accept international students.
"They are aware of the substandard nature of these institutions, these fly-by-night private colleges," she said.
Also on Friday Miller announced new rules in the federal government's jurisdiction to address fraud and "bad actors" in the international student program.
Miller's department plans to set up a system to recognize post-secondary schools that have higher standards for services, supports and outcomes for international students in time for the next fall semester.
The standards could include adequate access to housing, mental health services, and a lower ratio of international to Canadian students, Miller said, though the criteria hasn't been finalized.
Details about how exactly recognized schools and institutions would benefit under the new system will be released later, the minister said. As an example, he said applicants for those schools would be prioritized when it comes to processing their study permits.
"Our goal here is to punish the bad actors to make sure that they are held accountable, and reward the good actors who provide adequate outcomes for the success of international students," the minister said.
The details of that system will be important, Rho said, especially since students often fear speaking out because of their precarious status in Canada.
"Migrant student workers should not be caught in this ... carrot and stick system," she said.
"What will happen to those who do go to the schools that are 'bad actors?' They will also be punished. So instead, what they need is protections and equal rights."
The department is also looking to combat fraud by verifying international students' acceptance letters from Colleges and Universities.
The extra verification is a reaction to a scheme that dates back to 2017, which saw immigration agents issue fake acceptance letters to get international students into Canada.
The department launched a task force in June to investigate cases associated with the racket. Of the 103 cases reviewed so far, roughly 40 per cent of students appeared to be in on the scheme, while the rest were victims of it.
The task force is still investigating another 182 cases.
"The use of fraudulent admissions letters has been a major concern for my department this year and continues to pose a serious threat to the integrity of our student program," Miller said, adding that international students are not to blame.
The new rules come as a welcome development to the National Association of Career Colleges, the group's CEO said in a statement Friday.
"We welcome the opportunity to work with the federal government to improve our international student system by building greater trust and security, supporting Canadian communities, and ensuring that Canada’s immigration programs are student-centred," the CEO, Michael Sangster said in a statement.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 27, 2023.
Laura Osman, The Canadian Press