The test said they were good enough to get in, but they were failing in class. How Niagara College tackled an international student crisis

Second part of the Star’s series on international students. Hard not to see this as an exploitative business model:

The view from the Niagara Falls motel is hardly the slice of Canadiana the students expected.

They travelled from their homes in India, anticipating the Canada portrayed in Niagara College marketing materials, complete with a roaring falls and vibrant green vineyards — the perfect setting to lay the foundation for a better life.

Instead, these Niagara College students, living in cramped rooms, look out on a pool, in the centre of the motel parking lot, and a little wedding chapel. The only roar is from the steady rumble of traffic along Lundy’s Lane, not far from the bric-a-brac of the Niagara Falls tourist district.

The Rockwell Resort is far from a holiday haven, but it is cheap — about $300 a month per student, sharing with one to three others.

Money is tight. International students attending Niagara College pay at least $13,000 a year in tuition, compared to an average of $4,400 for domestic students. Some Rockwell residents say they subsist on as little as a piece of fruit and a cup of tea for breakfast before heading off to the Welland campus, a 20-minute bus ride away.

“I tell you, for the first four or five months here, I cried almost every day,” says Nikhil Desai, a 21-year-old second-year international business student from India’s Gujarat state, who has lived at the Rockwell for more than a year.

“Everything I was told about Canada, about being here, about living here, turned out to be the opposite. Completely opposite. But I can’t go back. There is no going back for us.”

Last year, Desai was part of the largest cohort of international students ever enrolled at Niagara College — 4,100 students out of a total of over 11,000.

More than 2,900 of those students were from India, and hundreds of them couldn’t cope academically in English. The sheer volume of struggling students triggered a crisis on campus, raising doubts about the credibility of international English-language admission tests. In response, the school’s administration ordered hundreds of students here and overseas to be re-evaluated for language proficiency and shifted its admission policies, including drastically reducing the number of new students from India. Other colleges have reacted by retesting their own international students.

A months-long joint investigation by The St. Catharines Standard and the Toronto Star found international enrolment in Ontario colleges has risen dramatically in the past five years, and that unprecedented growth has left students feeling overwhelmed and educators frustrated. In the case of Niagara College, these challenges manifested themselves in a situation one teacher described as a “nightmare.”

College president Dan Patterson says in an interview it was a “bump in the road” the school is managing.

“One of the things we pride ourselves on is the fact that if something goes off the tracks, we work very hard to correct it,” Patterson says. “Niagara College has been at this for 25 years, we’ve got support systems and invest in a lot to ensure the experience is good. And when it isn’t, we are going to find out what we can do to help. That is part of our DNA.”

After more than 400 students from India were re-evaluated for language proficiency, Niagara offered an English course to more than 200 Indian students who scored poorly, but most declined and opted to stay in their programs. Many stopped coming to class, according to six college teachers who spoke on condition of anonymity because they fear reprisals from the school’s administration.

One teacher says in the fall of 2018, there were about 50 students in a class, the vast majority from India. Most scored less than 10 per cent in their final grades, the teacher says. When the second semester began, only a handful of students were left in that course.

Despite absences, the Indian students remained enrolled, with some having moved on to the second year of their program, according to Steven Hudson, Niagara College’s vice-president of academics.

“As teachers, we want to see our students succeed,” says Ravi Ramkissoonsingh, president of OPSEU Local 242, which represents Niagara College faculty. “But there seemed to be very little chance of these students succeeding. And if they don’t, what becomes of them?”

The crisis at Niagara College came four years after changes to Canada’s immigration policies made a Canadian education more attractive to international students. As part of Ottawa’s strategy, students who graduated from an officially recognized Canadian school would earn points toward achieving permanent residence status.

Demand for admissions exploded in India, feeding a significant expansion of coaching centres designed to teach students how to pass critical English-language tests and fuelling a rise in agents who, students allege, were willing to provide passing grades for a price.

The number of Indian students in Canada surged dramatically. By 2018, India became the top exporter of international students to Canadian colleges. According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, 55,265 students from India enrolled in Ontario colleges that year alone.

Students say they see Canadian schools as a way to escape crushing poverty in India.

“The economic reality of living in India is not good,” says 25-year-old Niagara College nursing student Jajdeep Kavi, who shares a room at the Rockwell with another student.

She transferred to Niagara from Seneca last year. Her husband works in Brampton, where he lives with the couple’s daughter and his mother. Kavi says she doesn’t get much time with her family. The Rockwell had no vacancies earlier this month, so recent visits provided them with little privacy.

“This is not what I expected, but the opportunity is better,” Kavi says.

About 150 Indian students — many of them Punjabi speakers from the poorer, largely rural communities of Punjab — live in the Rockwell Resort. Some have bunk beds, others use cots, leaving just enough room for a beer fridge, a dresser and a small stove.

Rent is half of what they were told to expect to pay for housing in Niagara — a boon for students whose families have sold property and possessions to send their children to Canada.

Before they arrive, the Canadian government requires students from India to post a guaranteed investment certificate (GIC) of $10,000, more than half a million Indian rupees. That money covers only a portion of the $30,000 it costs to attend a year of classes, including travel, tuition, housing, admission testing and supplies.

“It’s very difficult because you have to make money to survive. Everything is expensive. But (according to the immigration department’s student permit rules) you cannot work more than 20 hours a week as a student,” says Desai, who works as a dishwasher in Niagara College’s Benchmark restaurant. “If you work 25 hours, you get deported.”

Desai lives with two other students. Their three beds — two cots and an inflatable mattress — dominate their 22-square-metre living space. They have learned to keep it tidy and find little ways — like having two fish tanks — to make it feel homey.

Motel owner Steve Rockwell say he advertises in India, but many students find him by word of mouth. He bought the place in May 2018, but says Indian students were already renting rooms under previous ownership. He tries to limit occupancy to two to a room when he can, but says there’s high demand from students.

“This motel is a Little India,” says Rockwell, who notes the motel is within walking distance of a Sikh temple, a Hindu temple and a mosque. “What I provide is an affordable living space that is clean and secure and, importantly, a place where they can be with people from their own culture and speak their language.”


For many prospective students in India, the road to Canada starts at an educational fair, where official college representatives promote their schools. These introductions to Ontario colleges open a possible pathway from poverty to permanent residency in Canada.

Canada’s higher standard of living is an undeniable siren song for young people in India, where the average annual income in 2018 was about $26,500, according to the World Bank, and opportunities are often scarce. Ontario colleges are taking advantage of this desire for a better life, says Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, an education policy consultation firm in Toronto.

Canada is the lure, Usher says, not any particular college. “You’ve got to understand the way that international students think about this is the poorer the country they’re from, the less likely they are to care about which institution they get into.”

Varunpreet Singh, a 27-year-old from India who graduated from George Brown College, says life in Canada is a key recruitment pitch.

“They sell you the dream of coming to Canada, a dream of having a better life,” says Singh, who now organizes international students through the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change.

That dream is so potent, students and their families are willing to sell their property and possessions, acquire high-interest loans and risk putting themselves deep in debt to cross the ocean and get to a Canadian college.

“I spent around 1.4 million rupees (around $28,000 Cdn),” says Harman Singh, a 20-year-old Humber College student from India. To raise the money to come to Canada — including the GIC, tests, medical exams and insurance — he had to use his mother’s savings and sell his late father’s car.

“It was the last thing I had of his,” Singh says.

Raising money is just one step on the road to Canada. To be accepted into an Ontario college, international students have to achieve a minimum score on a standardized English-language test conducted in their home country. The International English Language Testing System (IELTS), used by many post-secondary institutions and the immigration department, is a three-hour exam that assesses reading, writing and listening skills.

Since passing the language test is critical, some students turn to private education agents — not employed by the colleges — to shepherd them through the testing and applications.

Interviews with 11 international students from India — most at Niagara College — reveal a labyrinthine and costly process. The students say taking the English-language test costs about $300. Most had to do it more than once, paying the fee each time.

“I tried to do it on my own at first, but when I failed the first time, I hired an agent,” says Desai, the Rockwell resident, who passed on his second attempt.

The agents are not official representatives of the colleges, but act as an access point for students into Canada’s education and immigration systems.

Students interviewed for this story say agents handle everything from arranging training courses and exams, to filing paperwork with the Canadian government and college admission departments.

All but one Indian student interviewed for this story took a training course for the IELTS, which costs between $150 to $300 and takes about two months. The course is not about learning English, but rather provides strategies on how to pass the test.

Hudson, Niagara College’s vice-president of academics, says like many standardized admissions tests, the IELTS is structured in such a way that the method of answering a question can be found in the questions themselves. It’s why domestic students will train for months to take exams like the Law School Admissions Test or police college entrance exams.

As a consequence, students who otherwise do not have academic-level English skills can still manage a passing score.

For those who cannot, there is another option. While none of the students interviewed for this story say they bought a passing score, they all say they’ve heard of it being done. One student at the Rockwell, speaking on condition of anonymity because he did not want to jeopardize his standing at Niagara College, says he took the IELTS three times, paying $300 for each try. During the process, he was told by an agent he could buy a passing score for $1,000.

Reports of unscrupulous agents and fake test scores have made headlines in recent years, with the Times of India and India Tribune documenting high-profile arrests.

In 2016, an undercover investigation by SBS Punjabi radio journalist Shamsher Kainth found education agents selling English-language test scores for as much as $18,000.

SBS Punjabi recorded an agent claiming to have bribed IELTS staff in the city of Muktsar. His method, he said, was to buy two seats on testing day, one for the student and another for a person who writes and passes the test. This allowed the fake student to get around ID checks by exam staff before the test began. The fraudulent test was then submitted under the student’s name.


Niagara College says it received more than 14,000 applications from India for the 2018 school year. That fall, a record number of Indian students were admitted — part of the largest class of international students the school had ever accepted and contributing to substantial revenue and a multimillion-dollar surplus for the college.

Within weeks, teachers noticed an unusually high number of students, predominantly those from India, could not function academically in English.

According to the accounts of 10 Niagara College teachers, there had been warning signs the previous academic year, albeit on a slightly smaller scale.

“I’ve taught many international students, and it is not uncommon for them to have some difficulty in English. It’s usually their second, even their third language,” a former communications teacher recalls. “But these students really could not handle the work. We could not even talk to each other. Out of a class of 35 students, 30 were Punjabi-speaking students. I would go home some nights and just cry because I didn’t know what to do.”

The teacher shared with a reporter some of the course work students submitted in 2017. Simple essays based on an article the students were assigned to read are filled with grammatical errors, spelling mistakes and misused words. Homework assignments are better written than in-class assignments, but show signs of plagiarism. Verbatim passages, including errors, can be seen in the work of several students.

Teachers raised concerns with the college in 2017. Hudson says initially the college believed the issue to be a cultural, rather than a linguistic problem, and didn’t realize it was specific to students from the same country.

Administrators tried to organize sessions for instructors to learn “best practices for teaching international students,” with a focus on cultural sensitivities. But in emails obtained by The Standard, teachers were incredulous: “If the students cannot communicate in English, no strategy session or best practices is going to solve it,” wrote one.

Ramkissoonsingh, who teaches psychology, says teachers told the college administration that Punjabi-speaking students, in particular, were struggling, but felt their concerns were not taken seriously.

“Our members warned them,” he says. “There was obviously something wrong (with the English testing) in 2017, but the college didn’t listen. And we saw what happened.”

When the 2018 school year got underway, the problem was amplified by the record enrolment from India. Some international students were moved by the college — in some cases into language-centric courses like journalism, public relations and marketing — because their preferred classes were full, says Hudson.

In emails written to college administrators early in the semester and obtained for this story, Niagara College teachers said some of the students — who had passing IELTS scores — could not read, write or converse in English.

Plagiarism and cheating — which teachers say are also issues with domestic students — were, again, a problem. Several teachers say their international students used vocal cues and pen clicks to exchange answers during multiple-choice exams. The same wrong answers appeared on multiple students’ tests.

Teachers acknowledged the students were under pressure to survive in circumstances in which they had no reasonable chance of success.

“As a group, we need to be concerned with the students. Many have been placed in a position that must be devastating,” wrote one teacher in an email response to a director of student services who called for a meeting to come up with teaching strategies in September 2018. “To be in a class, not understand the language and have assignments given to them that they cannot even attempt. This forces them into a unwinnable situation. As teachers we feel for these students. They are not numbers or issues. They are individuals that we are responsible for.”

Hudson and Patterson say Niagara College had supports in place, including a handful of student leaders who speak Punjabi.

In late 2018, the college retested more than 400 of the international students already at the school, and ordered new IELTS tests for 400 set to arrive in the next semester.

Of the students already at the college who were given an in-house English test instead of another IELTS exam, more than 200 scored so low they were at risk of failing their classes. Teachers who were interviewed believe more than the 400 students tested were at risk of failing, but acknowledge this is an anecdotal assessment based on classroom experience.

The college offered to transfer struggling students from their programs of study into an English-language course. While the course might improve their comprehension and speaking skills, it could potentially jeopardize their path to permanent residency. International students need to graduate from a program recognized by Canada’s immigration department — and the language course isn’t one of them. To return to their core program of study would mean more time and additional tuition to graduate.

In the wake of the tests, Indian students clogged Niagara College’s international student centre on its Welland campus and pleaded with teachers in the hallways not to be removed from their programs. They would work harder, they said.

Only 10 per cent of the students who were offered the English classes agreed to take them, according to Hudson. Most opted to remain in their programs, despite the risk of failure.

In the meantime, 10 per cent of the prospective students still in India who were retested failed and were required to take an English night class once they arrived in Niagara in January 2019.


Federal Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, himself an immigrant, sees international students as vital to the national interest. The country needs immigrants, he says, and bringing them in through education is a way to build a work-ready population of new Canadians.

But if you don’t have the skills or the cash, “coming to Canada may not be the best option for you,” he says.

“International education in Canada is not for everybody. You are expected to pay your own way. You have to be really careful and do your due diligence on who you rely on for advice,” says Hussen.

He says Ottawa is aware of issues with educational agents in India, and the government has launched an advertising campaign aimed at promoting reliable sources of information for students who want to come to Canada.

Niagara College administrators defend their handling of the situation in 2018 and stand by the credibility of IELTS exams.

“We have not seen signs or indications of significant corruption or cheating in the results we have seen,” says Hudson. “It’s important we accept the validity of the IELTS tests. The IELTS are an international standard that are accepted by post-secondary institutions around the world.”

A spokesman for IELTS did not answer questions about the situation in India. In an emailed statement, Ashton Debono said the tests have “multi-layer security and score marking processes to ensure the validity of each individual test.”

Hudson says the college has no means to independently check the legitimacy of test results conducted in another country. College staff did not interview the thousands of Punjabi students who applied in 2018, a task the college says it is not equipped to do.

“In the end, we are relying on the work done by (the Canadian consulate in India) and others in the country who are focused on whether or not the tests themselves are being run inappropriately,” says Hudson.

And although Niagara College used an in-house exam to retest students rather than IELTS, Patterson and Hudson cautioned against overstating the extent of the problem.

Patterson defended the college’s track record of international student education, citing a 93 per cent graduation rate leading up to last year in 2018, and questioned the accounts of teachers interviewed for this story, saying they did not speak to him.

“How do I process between, is this their feelings or is it fact?” says Patterson, who believes teachers have to adapt their teaching methods to the needs of an increasingly diverse international student population.

On Sept. 3, 2019, just as this semester began, the college sent an update to staff saying it has hired a new educational consultant who will “explore” inclusive and culturally responsive teaching practices” with Niagara College teachers.

Ramkissoonsingh says the college has not gone far enough and has enough cash to improve services for international students.

According to the college’s budget documents, international tuition represents 38 per cent of total revenue this year compared to 16 per cent for domestic students. The college had a budget surplus of $13.9 million in 2017-18 and projects a $26.1 million surplus for the 2018-19 academic year.

The fallout from Niagara College has had ripple effects across the province, prompting other colleges to retest their own international students, including those from countries beyond India.

Durham College president Don Lovisa says the school did its own “due diligence” to ensure the problem at Niagara wasn’t happening on his campus, including investigating agents working with the college overseas.

Northern College, based in Timmins, retested the language skills of its international students this fall, as did St. Clair College in Windsor-Chatham.

While the Niagara situation caused some institutions to take notice, other colleges have provided a level of language support for international students for years, including Centennial College, which has offered English language classes, tutoring and workshops at all its campuses.

This fall, Niagara College also raised the minimum IELTS score it would accept for admission and pointedly reduced the number of admissions it is accepting from India. This year, the college has 2,476 Indian students enrolled, down from 2,914 the previous year.

The number of students from India now comprises 40 per cent of the first-year student body, compared to 60 per cent last year, according to a September bulletin from the college.

Hudson says this is not being done because of the 2018 situation, but to increase diversity on campus.

“The intent of our diversity strategy from the outset was to bring a broad diversity of students to the college,” he says, adding the college attracts students from 92 countries. “We could fill the college with Punjabi students, but don’t want to see admissions to programs dominated by a group from a single country.”

The college has implemented new online “pre-departure” programs to help prepare international students. And according to the September update “also introduced a new initiative over the summer to provide intensive two-week academic preparedness programs to over 650 incoming NC students in locations across India.”

Housing issues are also being reviewed. After Niagara College was questioned about students living in motels, Patterson says a consultant was hired to look into the living conditions of students. He says while students are free to select their own accommodation — including campus residence — the college has ensured the students are aware of support services at the school, as well as local food banks and other programs that can help them should they need it.

Over at the Rockwell Resort, Desai — who passed the 2018 Niagara College retests, which he said were “simple” — remains focused on becoming a Canadian citizen.

“There is a lot of pressure,” he says. “But the future here is better than in India.”

Source: The test said they were good enough to get in, but they were failing in class. How Niagara College tackled an international student crisis

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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