Montreal students left in limbo, with thousands of dollars on the line, after college suspends classes
Montreal Technical College didn’t start offering online courses until 8 months after pandemic hit
After paying thousands of dollars in tuition, many international students say they have felt abandoned since their school closed in the spring.
Like most schools in Quebec, Montreal Technical College, which specializes in architecture technology, suspended classes in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Eight months later, the private college is still not offering the full complement of courses, despite repeated reminders from Quebec's Ministry of Higher Education about the possibility of moving classes online.
"I'm totally disappointed and completely depressed," said MirPouria Zarrabi, a 30-year-old student from Iran who should have graduated last August.
He has no idea when a new semester will start and is worried about his future.
Zarrabi paid about $20,000 for his program and dreamed of finding a drafting job in the architecture or construction industry.
But he had to turn down job offers because he hadn't graduated yet. Without a certificate, he can't apply to settle in Quebec permanently.
"All of these plans, ruined," said Zarrabi.
Communication dried up
When the college first closed, students waited for the school to explain how it would finish the semester.
As the weeks passed, they grew more anxious. Other schools had already transitioned to online learning.
Emails and phone calls to the college began to go unanswered, said Carlos Torres, who was in his second semester when the school closed.
Many students had to extend their study and work permits, but had trouble getting the papers they needed from the college to do so, he said.
"In most of the cases, you have to send five emails, with a copy to the Ministry of Education in order to get an answer from them," said Torres.
CBC has seen his correspondence with the college, as well as the emails of several other students.
The students complained to the Ministry of Higher Education. Only then, did administrative staff at the college tell them there would be no summer session and classes wouldn't resume until September.
But that date came and went.
The students sent registered letters to the college's owner, but never got a response, said Torres.
A group of 20 students then signed an open letter to the province.
While the ministry investigated their complaint, they explored legal options, but were told nothing could be done, said Torres.
Finally, in November, a few courses were offered online to complete last winter's semester.
By then, Torres had given up and transferred to another school.
He knows many students don't have that option.
"In my case, I paid more than $10,000 to MTC college and I just consider that lost," said Torres.
He got some credit for the courses he already completed, but basically has to start from scratch.
"I prefer to just go ahead with my life, to keep pushing for my dreams," he said.
Teacher left unpaid
The students aren't the only ones wondering what's going on.
Brian Wiseman has taught at the college part time for the past three years.
"I have not heard one word from Montreal Technical College, not one word to say 'Oh, we'd like you to do this or we want to do this or this. Not one word," said Wiseman, a practising architect.
He said he is still owed money and vacation pay. The college's owner, David-Simon Boisvert, has not responded to Wiseman's emails or calls.
"If you've got kids paying $26,000, there's money there," said Wiseman, who doubts the overhead for running the college is very high.
He suspects the college may be having financial difficulties.
In 2014, Boisvert and the college were sued by a past owner/employee. The college was ordered to pay a sum of money. This year, another lawsuit was filed against Boisvert and the college by an ex-partner at the school. That case is still ongoing.
Wiseman sympathizes with the students, many of whom have invested a considerable chunk of their savings to come and study in Canada, with the hopes of settling here.
He can't understand why the college hasn't moved more quickly to adapt.
Teachers could easily set up a computer and camera in a disinfected classroom or office space at the school and offer courses that way, he said.
"Everything is doable if there's an effort."
Ministry of Higher Education warned college
The Ministry of Higher Education is aware of the complaints and said it reminded the college many times of the option to offer distance learning.
Despite this, the college did not follow up with anything, said Bryan St-Louis, a ministerial spokesman.
If the college is not offering the services listed in its permit, the permit could be modified or revoked.
If the college closes permanently, there is a guarantee in place to reimburse students if necessary, said St-Louis.
In a phone interview with CBC Montreal at the end of November, the college's owner said it was difficult to adapt its courses to an online environment, and it required a bit of trial and error.
Boisvert estimates he's invested close to $100,000 for new computers, training and upgrades to the college's server so teachers can access course content from home.
"A lot of our teachers are architects, engineers. They're in the industry, but they're not familiar, necessarily, with the platforms," he said.
Boisvert said 10 out of 14 courses have resumed.
Several students disputed this and said only a couple have started online.
In a follow-up email, CBC asked Boisvert for a list of courses currently being offered, but did not hear back.
"So we're finishing the winter semester and we're preparing to start a new semester in January," Boisvert told CBC.
He later said the start date may be pushed back to February to allow new international students time to finish quarantining after the holiday break.
In addition to the technical challenges, Boisvert said the college's small administrative staff was busy helping students get the documents they needed to renew permits and visas.
He understands their frustration, but said he isn't aware of any unanswered requests.
"Maybe they wanted things to be faster, but we did the best we could in the circumstances that we were in," said Boisvert.
As a small business, the college's budget is tight.
Students have not paid any fees since February and administrative staff were not paid during the school's hiatus, he said.
He admits that the civil cases against him have taken up a lot of his time and energy.
"It takes a toll on you," said Boisvert, who hopes to settle out of court.
As for reimbursing tuition fees, Boisvert said they'd have to look into it as many students haven't finished paying for the winter semester yet.
CBC asked Boisvert by email about unpaid teachers' salaries, but he did not respond.