HESA: That Fifth Estate Episode [international students]

Good commentary on the abuse of international students by private vocational colleges in the GTA that are in public-private partnership (PPP) arrangements with non-GTA public colleges and the need for greater regulation:

Many of you will have seen the Fifth Estate episode that aired two weeks ago, about international students in Canadian institutions and how many of them think – sometimes not without reason – they have been sold a bill of goods with respect to the quality of the education they receive.  If you haven’t already watched it, it’s here and you may want to give it a gander before continuing with this blog.

Finished?  Good.  Then I’ll begin.

Broadly speaking, the story is one of supply meeting demand.  In Punjab (this story is all about Punjabi students, there might as well not be any other types in Canada so far as this story is concerned), there are a lot of poor families who want their sons and daughters to go abroad to make a new life.  In Canada, there are several post-secondary institutions who a) can provide a pathway to permanent residency if a student graduates from a 2-year program and b) are willing to expand spots almost to infinity to accommodate students wanting to take advantage of this path.   The usual televisual suspects give some facetime to presenter Mark Kelly are students, often despondent from parental pressure and homesickness, immigration consultants eager to play whistleblower, and teachers recounting students falling asleep in class, exhausted from trying to combine work and study.  But there’s also some not-so -usual suspects: where this piece breaks some new ground is showing how the whole recruitment operation works in Punjab. Specifically, the report uses through some hidden camera work finding agents giving out flagrantly incorrect and, in some cases, illegal advice.  (It’s not entirely clear whether these agents are contracted to specific Canadian institutions or not).

So, there is some important reporting in this show.  But there’s also some weird stuff, too.  For instance, near the beginning of the show, a health counsellor in Brampton claims that there are 50-60 suicides a year among Pubjabi students in Brampton alone.  You’d think this would be the actual center of the story, right?  Mass death in a Toronto suburb?  But no, the statement just hangs there, unverified, un-followed up (presumably the local coroner would be able to verify).  Bizarre.

What I found most baffling about the show was the producer’sdecision to insinuate that this was a true depiction of the international student market across Canada, when pretty clearly it is just a depiction of what is happening in Ontario colleges, and more specifically, in the private vocational colleges in the GTA that are in public-private partnership (PPP) arrangements with non-GTA public colleges.  That’s not to say this stuff is absent elsewhere (it’s not), but if you’re a follower of this blog, you’ll be aware of what an outlier Ontario colleges are.  But for some reason The Fifth Estate chose to just glide over this distinction.

In fact, even though the report focused on a handful of egregious cases in the GTA, it seemed incapable of consistent reporting on the details: yes, Alpha and Hanson Colleges are private career colleges, but the programs the international students are attending belong nominally to a pair of public colleges (St. Lawrence and Cambrian Colleges, respectively).  The show seems to be under the impression that it was the private institutions which made the deals to sign up 10x the number of students that the institution could physically hold.  But that’s not true: it is the public colleges that are responsible for this.  And by missing that distinction, it completely let the leadership of these public institutions off the hook. 

Another thing the show misses completely: all these schools are acting in defiance of Ministry Policy with respect to these PPP campuses.  Read the policy and you’ll quickly realize that the number of specific protocols being breached are more numerous than the ones being observed.  But the most egregious violation is that international enrolment at partnership colleges is not supposed to amount to more than twice the number of international students on the “home” campus.  Yet not even one of these public colleges with PPPs in the GTA are obeying this limit.  All of them are massively overenrolled in relation to the policy.  And yet consecutive Minister of Colleges and Universities have simply failed to enforce the policy.  Why?  Your guess is as good as mine, but with hundreds of millions of dollars involved, you’d think it’s something that both opposition parties and media would take more seriously.  Or rather, I understand why Ontario opposition parties are not taking it seriously because they’re currently in shambles, but how could The Fifth Estate miss it?  Indeed, why choose to make the federal immigration minister the focus of its winding-up hard-question interview when it is clear, and I mean CRYSTAL FREAKING PEPSI CLEAR, that the key failure is one of provincial policy?

The answer, I suspect, is that The Fifth Estate is one of those CBC shows with a “national mandate”.  And so, while this story was fundamentally about certain PPP arrangements in Greater Toronto which are not especially representative of the rest of the country, they had to make out like it was a national story. And heck, it isn’t even representative of actual Toronto colleges.  If I were Humber College, I’d be  furious about Mark Kelly using the Lakeshore campus as a backdrop for the intro to a show talking about a set of atrocious events, PRECISELY NONE OF WHICH were associated with Humber.  I mean, really.

(Also, for some reason, the show does a drive-by smearing of Waterloo-based recruitment aggregator ApplyBoard, mainly because it does not differentiate between dodgy agents using ApplyBoard as a platform to submit their students’ documents and agents actually working for ApplyBoard.  But – full disclosure – HESA is working with ApplyBoard on a project at the moment, so take that observation with whatever-sized grain of salt you wish).

To be clear: whatever its failings, the show gets two big things right.  First, there are some really nasty things happening in the PPP colleges around Toronto.  Some of us have been warning about the reputational danger these institutions pose for quite awhile, and it’s long past time both the federal and provincial governments got their act together and regulated international education and international recruitment as if quality mattered (that they do not do so already is a complete disgrace).  Second, there is an ethical element to recruitment that a lot of institutions have missed: what might be acceptable in terms of recruitment tactics when dealing with rich international students whose family wealth makes high international fees easily affordable (as is the case with a lot of East Asian students who have come to Canada) and who are likely to return to their home countries later, are much less acceptable when applied with poor international students (mainly from Punjab) whose families are mortgaging everything in order for a shot at getting their kids Canadian citizenship.  These are important points that need to be front and center in the policy debate, and good on them for doing so.

But at the same time: boy howdy, the show missed a lot and unjustly left the impression that the bad apples were representative of the whole.  Maybe that’s just how media works: but if so, that’s all the more reason the federal and provincial governments should take regulation of the international student sector more seriously than they currently do.

Source: That Fifth Estate Episode

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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