Vipul Patel thought that coming from India to study in Canada would be a good way to gain a foothold in a country he hopes will become his permanent home.
But nearly a year after making the move, the 23-year-old is frustrated, confused and not sure who to believe in the sometimes murky — and costly — world where ghost consultants mingle with legitimate agents wanting to help foreign students come to Canada.
"It's very hard for me to trust anyone," says Patel.
Patel's suspicions developed after he turned to Edu Edge, a Toronto-based consulting firm that, with the help of a sub-agent, was promoting "study and immigrate" packages to students in India.
Edu Edge isn't licensed to provide immigration consulting services, but its president, Naveen Kolan, says the firm hires such services as needed by seeking out Quebec lawyers who can offer them.
The company also hires subagents and in this case, the agent may have overstated what it was able to deliver, Kolan says. Edu Edge has told the subagent to take down the online ads in question.
Complained to regulator
In his complaint to the Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council, the federal regulator launched last year by the federal government to crack down on unauthorized immigration representatives, Patel said he was made false promises about immigration timelines and the need for French to study and work in Quebec.
Patel wanted to enrol in an accounting course offered by the Lester B. Pearson School Board, the largest English-language school board in Quebec.
Who is an authorized representative?
Since the passage of Bill C-35 — formerly called the Cracking Down on Crooked Consultants Act — it has been illegal for unauthorized representatives to charge fees for immigration services. Those who are authorized representatives must be in good standing and must be registered under one of three groups:
- Members of the new Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council (ICCRC).
- Lawyers with a provincial or territorial law society.
- Notaries who are members of the Chambre des notaires du Québec.
For more information, read the ICCRC's bulletin for education agents and institutions.
His complaint alleges he was given "false advertisement on Facebook" promising that students could get permanent residency in 24 months and that no French would be required for residency in Quebec, misconceptions that Patel says were verbally reinforced.
"French is compulsory in Quebec. You need French in order to apply for [Quebec's skilled worker program,]" says Johnny Purohit, president of the Montreal-based registered consulting firm CIS Experts, who helped Patel file his complaint.
"Vipul was led to believe that he would get a three-year work permit if he studied in Quebec for two years, which is misleading — and it played a big role in his decision to come to Quebec to study here."
At Edu Edge, Kolan says the company advised its subagent to remove the ads "right away" after questions regarding them were brought to the company's attention.
Edu Edge tries to give "fair and accurate" information about the accounting program and educational outcomes to students, Kolan said.
At the same time, he says, the company works with partners whose advertisements are "difficult for us to monitor" and who sometimes "resort to practices which are not standard practices."
The Lester B. Pearson School Board has been using Edu Edge to recruit students from India for specialized accounting courses that are only offered to students from that country.
"We wanted to break into the Indian market. We'd done our investigation and [Edu Edge] seemed to be very thorough," says Carol Mastantuono, the board's international studies co-ordinator.
The board has had a good partnership with Edu Edge, she says, and is looking at extending its agreement with the group.
Still, Mastantuono told CBC News she would discuss the Patel complaint with Edu Edge.
"If it's proved that any company — and it's not just Edu Edge — any company or any organization that we dealt with was proven to be not on the up an up or there would be problems or difficulties with them, then we would move towards, absolutely, you know, nullifying the contract. There'd be no question about that."
The ICCRC wouldn't comment on Patel's complaint, which is still being reviewed, because of confidentiality rules. But it does acknowledge the difficulty international students can face, and has posted an open letter to Canadian colleges and universities on its website.
"We are asking Canadian educational institutions to protect international students by encouraging their recruiters to operate within Canadian laws," the letter says.
"It has come to our attention that foreign students are often victims of abuse and improper advice. Either they are being coerced into purchasing airline tickets at a higher fee, or they are threatened and intimidated by agents, especially when the students ask for a refund when applications are refused."
The federal government has served notice it sees international students as an attractive immigration target.
In early November, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced plans to fast-track foreign students and have more admitted as immigrants each year under the Canadian Experience Class.
Kenney made his announcement flanked by young foreign university students, noting "these are the kind of bright young people we are trying to recruit."
The government has also proposed changes to its International Student Program "in order to better protect international students and enhance Canada's reputation as a destination of choice for their studies," Citizenship and Immigration Canada said in an email.
More details on that are expected in the next few weeks. But in the meantime, not everyone is happy with the idea of promoting Canadian post-secondary education as an immigration tool.
Come for an education
Naomi Alboim, chair of the policy forum at the School of Policy Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., says international students should be coming here because they want an education, not necessarily because they see it as a quicker route to immigration.
"The transition from international student status to permanent resident status should be a byproduct of students choosing to remain and being eligible to remain as opposed to the primary intent for why they're coming here as an international student."
Alboim says she's much more worried about students who are coming to vocational schools, language schools or other educational institutions, rather than international students attending Canadian universities.
Those students attending Canadian universities go through a screening process and receive an education that is generally very good, she says.
Whereas students at the other schools or institutions "may be exploited in the sense that they pay high fees but they're not getting the education they need.
"Those are the kinds of institutions that tend to use third-party recruiters, that tend to in some cases promise the students the sky and can't deliver."
Not a packaged deal
Alboim says it's to the federal government's credit that it has proposed regulations that would require provinces to identify educational institutions that they think should be able to host international students.
As Brent Farrington, internal co-ordinator for the Canadian Federation of Students, says, more and more international students are running into trouble in Canada.
"It's a growing issue, obviously, with the number of international students increasing in Canada," he said.
Speaking generally about the subject, and not referring specifically to Edu Edge, Farrington said: "because the recruiters are paid essentially for fulfilling quotas, they make a lot of promises, many of which are not true, to the international students they're recruiting."
"That's not to say that all recruiters are bad, but we've reached a level where the federal government is stepping in to adopt a law to require recruiters and agents to register with the government if they're providing advice on Canadian immigration — and that includes work permits, study permits and paths to permanent residency."
Farrington says recruiting agents who make promises that students will be able to immigrate into Canada once they have a degree "should receive hefty fines because that's not true."
"What we have is a situation in which international students have a great chance of being able to immigrate, but it's certainly not a packaged deal," he says.