Melissa Chirino remembers the recruiters who came to her high school in the Caribbean island country Curaçao, extolling the benefits of studying in Canada.
“They tell you it’s way, way more affordable than anything else,” Chirino said.
But when Chirino began her studies at Douglas College, she spent a year in a homestay before she could find a place she could afford.
School recruiters paint an inaccurate picture of studying in Canada, she said.
“I think the reality of what it is to come and study here as compared to what we hear from recruiters back home is completely different,” said Chirino, chairperson of the BC Federation of Students.
A growing number of students have come to Canada and British Columbia, attracted by promises of good schools, a strong career future and the chance to live in Canada.
But federal and provincial politicians are promising big changes amid growing fears students are being exploited by low-quality schools and unscrupulous employers.
Selina Robinson, B.C.’s minister of post-secondary education and future skills, said the government will introduce a new “framework” this year enforcing tougher standards on schools that teach foreign students, especially those that are privately operated.
Robinson said the framework would also ban “surprise” tuition hikes for international students once they begin their studies in B.C.
Robinson said she believes some of those schools and their representatives abroad are spreading false information about the programs they offer and the realities of studying in British Columbia.
She said she shares the concerns of federal Immigration Minister Marc Miller, who threatened to impose a new cap on study permits if provinces and territories don’t crack down on what he called “the diploma equivalent of puppy mills.”
“If you’re coming to British Columbia and you’re coming to study and go to school, you should be treated fairly and you should have access to high-quality education and training from respected intuitions,” Robinson said in an interview last month. “That’s the expectation, and I know it doesn’t always happen.”
International student enrolment in British Columbia has more than doubled in the past decade. Robinson’s ministry estimated there were more than 175,000 such students attending post-secondary institutions in the province last year, compared with about 78,000 in 2013.
Most of those students attend private institutions, according to ministry estimates. But enrolment has also exploded at public colleges and universities that rely increasingly on international student tuition.
Some academics worry those students have become a new underclass of workers whose financial precarity and temporary status make them vulnerable to fraud and exploitation.
Jenny Francis, a professor of geography at Langara College, recently completed a three-year study of international students that found many are often working long hours in low-wage jobs while trying to complete their studies.
“They’re the new temporary foreign worker, basically,” Francis said.
Dale McCartney, a professor of political science at the University of the Fraser Valley who studies international student policy, believes that is no accident.
“Canada has been dependent on migrant labour and migrant students for at least 20 years right now, and arguably a lot longer,” McCartney said.
McCartney said he is glad to see government efforts to help those students. But he worries they are also being blamed for the failures of policies they did not create.
“I’m glad that we’re talking about the fact we constructed this very terrible system,” he said. “But the conversation has been missing the forest for the trees.”
‘A plan designed to recruit students who would have to work’
Francis and McCartney became interested in studying international student policy in the same place: their classrooms.
In 2008, McCartney was a teacher at Fraser International College, a private college that has a partnership with Simon Fraser University and bills itself as “your pathway to Simon Fraser.”
At that time, such arrangements were rare; now, McCartney says, they are common, in part so schools can recruit more international students.
Meanwhile, at Langara, Francis began noticing students dragging themselves into classes, sometimes after working 12-hour shifts in warehouses and other businesses. Many, she realized, were required to work so much that they scarcely had time for school. She began to worry about them.
“It’s so hard to be caught in the middle of that as an instructor,” Francis said. “There were grown men crying in the hallway as other people were passing by, just begging and begging to have better grades.”
Francis would launch a three-year study that included surveys of roughly 1,300 international students at Langara and the College of New Caledonia in Prince George.
They found the vast majority of students were working, and many were struggling. Only 28 per cent of surveyed Langara students said they had enough cash to meet their basic needs.
In theory, international students need to show they have the financial means to support themselves for one year in Canada. Since the early 2000s, that figure has been set at tuition, travel costs and $10,000 in cash. The federal government has recently announced that figure will double to $20,635.
But McCartney said the government likely knew for years that the $10,000 threshold was far too little to make ends meet, especially in cities like Vancouver, where the cost of a vacant rental unit stood at $2,373 a month as of last year.
The result was that students, either by plan or by necessity, found jobs. In 2000, only 8.9 per cent of international students in British Columbia reported taxable earnings. Later, the government would loosen rules around where those students could find employment. By 2018, 46 per cent of international students in B.C. reported employment income, according to Statistics Canada. It found those students were disproportionately likely to work in low-wage sectors like food services, accommodation and retail.
“There’s no question that when that plan was created they knew $10,000 was not enough money to live off of,” McCartney said. “This was a plan designed to recruit students who would have to work.”
Before 2022, international students in Canada could work only up to 20 hours a week. But that year, the federal government removed that cap in response to businesses insisting they needed more workers and student groups saying they wanted more hours.
Now, Miller plans to reintroduce a cap as of April, he said, which he suggested may be 30 hours. “We know that 40 hours a week is untenable for a student,” Miller said.
But while student advocates interviewed for this story agreed their peers were being exploited, they argued reimposing the cap would not solve the problem. Some, like Chirino, argued it would harm students who have no other means of paying their bills.
“At the end of the day, I think that we all believe students shouldn’t have to work 40 hours a week to pay for their rent, their groceries, their food. I wish that was the reality,” Chirino said. “But when you look at their fees and how much they have to pay, that simply isn’t feasible.”
Sarom Rho, an organizer with the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change in Ontario, said she knows many student workers are being forced to work long hours in dangerous conditions. But she argued that reintroducing the cap would likely force those workers to do the same jobs under the table, opening them up to more abuse.
“The solution is not to double down and punish people further and push workers into the shadows,” Rho said. “The solution is to address how there are some people in the country who are profiting off of temporary migration, profiting off of the creation of an underclass of workers.”
International students seen as ‘cash cows’
Francis believes the reason that hasn’t happened already is that too many people have benefited from the status quo — including schools like her own.
In 2019, B.C. estimated the value of tuition fees at private and public post-secondary schools at close to $3.5 billion, according to an internal document from Robinson’s ministry that The Tyee obtained via freedom of information legislation.
That same document compares those students directly to commodities. If international students were an export, the document said, they would be the third most valuable in the province, after fuel and timber.
Educators interviewed for this story were uncomfortable with that comparison. But students weren’t surprised. “These schools see international students as cash cows, in the end,” Chirino said.
Francis said it encapsulated how post-secondary institutions rely on international students — and how that relationship makes change even more difficult.
“They [the government] didn’t imagine how colleges that are struggling to make ends meet in a context of reduced provincial funding would jump on that funding stream,” Francis said.
At the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver campus, the number of international students rose from 8,685 in the 2012-13 fiscal year to 17,040 in 2021-22.
Unlike with domestic students, there is no limit to how much post-secondary schools can hike international tuition. In that same time period, tuition for a foreign student with a full course load in the faculty of arts at UBC rose to $44,942 from $23,999, according to DataBC. In comparison, full course load tuition for a domestic arts student at UBC is projected at less than $6,000 in the coming academic year.
In the latest fiscal year, that school received $611 million in international student tuition, far more than the $393 million from domestic students.
But most international students in B.C. are not attending public institutions like UBC or Langara. Robinson’s ministry believes a majority of international students — nearly 95,000 as of last year — attend one of more than 200 privately operated schools across the province, some of which cater almost exclusively to international students.
University Canada West, the largest of those institutions by enrolment, received more than 14,000 study permits between the start of 2022 and the end of April 2023. Those were only the permits approved; 45 per cent of students who applied were rejected by visa officers, according to documents obtained by The Tyee via freedom of information legislation. UCW declined interview requests.
Robinson said she has received numerous complaints about some privately operated schools failing to offer a real education. In some cases, she said, institutions do not offer in-person instruction, despite advertisements or promises to the contrary.
“I have met students who are not being treated with respect, or not getting the education they thought they would be getting, and I would say almost exclusively from the private institutions,” Robinson said.
Such schools need a certificate from the province to operate. But Robinson said the current oversight system is based on complaints and that few students want to step forward. Some, she said, may not speak English well enough. Others worry complaining will end in their being sent home.
“They come, and their family has saved forever for them to come, and they think if they complain they’ll be sent home. And they don’t want to,” Robinson said.
The goal for many of those students, Francis said, is not necessarily education but to get on a pathway to permanent residency. But her research found that only 30 per cent of undergraduate students in B.C. would attain permanent residency within five years of graduation — the lowest in the country.
“The depressing fact is the current system really does work well for post-secondary institutions. It works well for employers, for the most part, because it brings in a lot of low-wage workers... so there’s not really any incentive to change,” Francis said.
Robinson said she was also worried by a concentration of international students from the same part of the world. Right now, that’s India. From 2013 to 2022, the number of Indian international students in B.C. rose by nearly 900 per cent.
Robinson said students from all countries are welcome. But she argued one of the benefits of international education is forging international relationships and said that would not happen if students are from the same region.
“In the past, it could have been students from China depending on where the volume is coming from. So how is that helpful?” Robinson said.
“If we say that this is the value, then we have to be making operational decisions around how to achieve those goals. Having an entire class made up of students from one country doesn’t achieve the global international relationships we value.”
Robinson and Miller, for the most part, have only hinted at what changes may come. Robinson said she plans to toughen standards for private institutions. She also said she would ban all post-secondary schools from hiking international tuition rates in the middle of a student’s studies.
But the big question, for many, is whether the government will reduce the number of students it allows in the country — and what that will mean.
Professors Tania Das Gupta and Yvonne Su, who both teach at York University, have been studying the predicament of international students. They share concerns students are being exploited by schools and employers alike, particularly students from India.
“They might go into debt coming here. So part of the impetus to participate in the labour market is to pay off those debts,” Das Gupta said.
But both said they also worry international students are being unfairly blamed for a system they did not create or for policy issues like the housing crisis.
Su, a professor in York University's department of equity studies, said there is a racist tone to some of those comments.
“When we talk about this, we talk about people stealing... as rentals or jobs, we’re not talking about white international students,” Su said.
Das Gupta argued post-secondary institutions themselves should do more to support students, since they are one of the beneficiaries of the system.
“They bear some kind of responsibility, and what kind of services do they give? What kind of services do they give to these international students?” she said.
McCartney said the heart of the problem is that post-secondary institutions of all sizes and shapes have become reliant on international students. That is the case not just for private institutions, he said, but also for mid-size colleges that take much more action to support foreign students and hire many academics. Both groups, he said, could suffer immensely if Miller were to make good on his threat of restricting visas.
“It’s a very tricky thing to resolve without harming a lot of people, or harming the higher ed sector in a really profound way,” McCartney said.