Quebec private college pushed for early tuition payment before applying for creditor protection
Their studies disrupted, hundreds of international students are also barred from working
Sehaj Sharma says he began to suspect his private college in Longueuil, Que., was in trouble when it suddenly pushed him to pay thousands of dollars in tuition fees a month earlier than planned.
In late November, Sharma and his classmates were given days to pay the money or risk being suspended or kicked out.
He scrambled to come up with nearly $7,000.
"It's not that easy to pay all these fees in three to four days," said Sharma, a 19-year-old from India who was taking the college's medical office specialty program.
The college, known in French as the Collège de comptabilité et de secrétariat du Québec (CCSQ), offers vocational training in programs such as accounting and secretarial studies. Most of its students are from India.
Last Friday, the college, along with two other private colleges and a student recruiting firm, filed for creditor protection. In the court filing, the colleges blamed the COVID-19 pandemic for some of their financial troubles.
Payment and winter break moved up
Students who attended CCSQ are now questioning the real reason for the big rush to pay their fees early.
Initially, the CCSQ's finance department told students on Nov. 21 they had until the beginning of January to pay their fees.
But an email sent Nov. 29, shared with CBC Montreal, told students they had until Dec. 3 to pay nearly $7,000.
The college said it couldn't offer extensions or payment by instalment.
"Failure to make a payment by the due date will result in the suspension of a student's privileges (such as access to student services), up to suspension or expulsion from a studies program," said the email.
The demand for money coincided with an email extending the winter break.
The students were told the break would start the following day — Nov. 30 — due to concerns about the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
Originally, the CCSQ was supposed to be closed from Dec. 12 to Jan. 10. The administration assured the students that their programs wouldn't be prolonged.
But when students arrived at the college on Jan. 10, the doors were locked.
Sharma couldn't believe it and now says he's worried about his future.
An only child, Sharma has been on the phone with his parents in Patiala, a large city in India's northern state of Punjab.
"We paid everything on time and in order," said a weary-sounding Sharma in a phone interview.
International students pay $28,000-$30,000 to attend the colleges over a two-year period, which is three to four times what a Canadian student pays.
"Still we are treated like this," said Sharma.
Unpaid tuition fees, refunds in the millions
In addition to CCSQ, M College in Montreal, CDE College in Sherbrooke and the recruiting firm Rising Phoenix International filed for creditor protection last week.
The colleges and recruiting firm, under the umbrella name RPI Group, are all owned by the Mastantuono family.
Joseph Mastantuono is the president of the three colleges.
The request for creditor protection comes a little more than a year after the province began to investigate several private colleges, including M College and CDE College, for "questionable" recruitment practices of students in India.
Students faced long delays in getting their study permit approved by the federal government. Unable to come to Canada, many students decided to withdraw from the colleges and apply for a refund of their tuition fees.
In December, CBC News reported dozens of students in India were still waiting for their tuition to be refunded.
The court filing last week has created even more uncertainty and stress.
According to the application for creditor protection, unpaid tuition fees and refund claims from 633 students against the RPI Group are estimated at nearly $6.4 million. The document says there could be an additional $5 million in potential claims from hundreds of other students who have yet to get their student visa.
Now that the schools are closed, the students can't continue their programs. If they aren't studying, Immigration Canada told them, they don't have the right to work.
"What am I supposed to do now?" said Dev Sharma, a classmate of Sehaj's at the CCSQ. Students have 150 days to enrol at another school, but Sharma says he's already paid $21,000 to the college.
"It's very difficult because those were the savings of a lifetime from my parents and they worked for so many years to give me a better education, and now all of a sudden, everything is gone," said Sharma.
The 19-year-old doubts he'll ever get his money back.
"I have literally, almost no hope."
He and his family thought the college was a safe place for him to study, not only because it was in Canada, but because it was recognized as a DLI, or designated learning institution, approved by the province.
Lack of recourse
Dev and Sehaj have both complained to the Ministry of Higher Education, but have yet to hear anything back.
In an email, ministry spokesperson Bryan St-Louis said representatives of the colleges, along with their lawyers, met ministry officials on Jan. 5 to tell them they intended to file for creditor protection.
He said the ministry is closely monitoring the situation, but any refunds will depend on the restructuring process, which is being supervised by the accounting firm Richter Advisory Group Inc.
Questions to CCSQ president Joseph Mastantuono were forwarded to the Richter group, which declined to comment, saying the matter is now before the courts.
"It's like a legal web that they have formed to protect themselves," said Dev Sharma.