British Columbia

Sudden ESL school closure the result of legal loophole: NDP

The provincial NDP says the recent closure of an ESL school is proof current provincial regulations don't do enough to protect students at private language schools.

NDP members say they asked government for tighter regulations last year but didn't get them

Teachers at Vancouver English Centre were on strike when the school suddenly closed, leaving 600 students out of class and almost 100 staff members out of jobs. (Christer Waara/CBC)

The B.C. NDP says the recent closure of an English as a second language (ESL) school is proof current provincial regulations don't do enough to protect students at private ESL schools — or B.C.'s reputation abroad.

The provincial government overhauled its private career training regulatory body, PCTIA, in the spring of 2015, establishing a student protection fund and basically giving the group more regulatory teeth.

But it remained optional for private ESL schools to register with PCTIA — something NDP advanced education critic Kathy Corrigan says was identified by both her party and the ESL industry as a major loophole at the time.

"We predicted that there would be failures, that students would lose thousands of dollars, but [the government] decided to go ahead and leave that loophole there," Corrigan said.

"What [we've ended] up with is, once again, having a school close down and our reputation as a destination for post-secondary education language schools taking a big hit."

The Vancouver English Centre (VEC) closed without notice last week in the midst of a labour dispute, leaving 600 students out of money and out of class. The school was not registered with PCTIA, which means those students do not have access to the new student protection fund that would have reimbursed them.

Both VEC and the Ministry of Advanced Education were contacted by CBC News, but neither party has commented on the issue.

Staff and students found this note posted on the doors of Vancouver English Centre when they arrived at the building last Friday. (Vancouver English Centre/Twitter)

Registration required to issue student visas

In an email statement, Advanced Education Minister Andrew Wilkinson said private language schools are not required to register with PCTIA unless they host international students for programs longer than six months.

That's because foreign visitors require a student visa to stay in Canada for longer than half a year, and they must attend an accredited school to receive that visa.

In March of 2015, Wilkinson told the provincial legislature that optional membership was an attempt to balance the need for regulation.

He gave the specific example of a private tutor giving Spanish lessons from home as something the act shouldn't be regulating.

There are currently 40 ESL schools registered with PCTIA.

Corrigan said the optional nature of registration means it's almost impossible to know how many unregistered schools are operating in B.C., but she said the number is likely in the hundreds, and the industry generates around $1 billion a year.

"You have reputable schools who are essentially paying for their own regulation, competing against schools that don't have the same level of oversight, and therefore it costs them far less to operate."

PCTIA was formed in 2004 to combat "fly-by-night" schools. A national industry-run organization, Languages Canada, also has a similar mandate.

"[Now,] there's no recourse for those students [at VEC]," Corrigan said. "It's going to be a really expensive loss for, in this case, hundreds of students."