Students from India paid thousands to Quebec colleges they couldn't attend. Now they can't get that money back
Stuck more than 11,000 kilometres away in India, students bemoan the lack of recourse
For years, Amanpreet Kaur's parents set aside what money they could so their daughter could study abroad.
In 2020, Kaur enrolled in business administration at M College of Canada, a private college in Montreal. Her tuition totalled more than $15,000 for the year.
But there was a problem: Kaur couldn't come to Canada because she didn't have her study permit, which was delayed after the college was put under investigation last winter for its recruitment practices.
In February 2021, she opted for online courses instead. When her permit still hadn't been approved by the federal government by spring, she decided to withdraw from the school.
The college initially told her it would take six to eight weeks to give her back just $7,300 (less than half of what she paid), but that wait has now stretched to more than half a year.
"My parents are so stressed because it was their hard-earned money," Kaur said on a recent video call with CBC News. The 20-year-old lives in Ludhiana, a large city in India's northern state of Punjab, where her father works as a farmer.
Kaur said she is part of a WhatsApp group with about 120 Indian students who are in a similar predicament with M College, which is operated by a Montrealer named Joseph Mastantuono.
Mastantuono runs another private school in Sherbrooke, Que., where students also say they have not been reimbursed.
Kaur shared with CBC News copies of her email correspondence with the school and tuition receipts. The CBC also spoke with three other students who are also waiting for their money back.
"We are all shocked. No authorities are ready to help us," said Kaur.
WATCH | Family saved for years to send this student abroad:
Students in limbo
M College and CDE College were among 10 private colleges investigated by the province for what it described as "questionable" recruitment practices for students in India.
Those 10 colleges were temporarily barred from accepting certain foreign student applications. That put a hold on the processing of Quebec Acceptance Certificates (CAQ), a document international students need to obtain their study permit, which is then issued by Ottawa.
While the suspensions were lifted at the beginning of 2021, long processing delays have persisted.
Without a study permit, some students were forced to defer classes, leaving them in educational limbo.
Some of the students never took online classes, but were told a $4,000 withdrawal penalty would be deducted from their refund to cover immigration services provided by Rising Phoenix Immigration Services, which is also based in Montreal.
Mastantuono is listed as a director of that company.
Over the past two and a half years, M College has been the subject of 104 complaints from Indian students hoping to get their money back, according to Quebec's Ministry of Higher Education.
CDE College has been the subject of 90 additional complaints.
Mastantuono declined a request for an interview and did not respond to a series of written questions about the refund delays at M College and CDE College. Both schools are closed from Nov. 30 to Jan. 10, 2022.
"We are working to address the situation but given the confidentiality and nature of the information, we will not be providing any additional details at this point," he said in an email.
Lack of oversight
The problems at M College come amid a boom in foreign students in Quebec and across Canada. The number of students from India studying in Quebec has skyrocketed, from 2,686 in 2017-18 to 14,712 two years later.
The majority of the students attend private, non-subsidized colleges.
Last June, Quebec released its findings into the 10 colleges, which revealed shortcomings around recruitment, commercial practices, governance and teaching conditions.
Naseer Mehdi Khan, chair of the Montreal-based India Canada Organization, said he has fielded complaints from students at other Montreal colleges who say they were sold false promises.
Khan said the entire system — from the education consultants in India to the colleges themselves — lacks oversight. The provincial government has not done enough, he said, despite a commitment this summer to better regulate private colleges.
"When it comes to colleges, they have no answer," Khan said.
Colleges in Canada are increasingly used as a path to immigration, but the students are taken advantage of by "unscrupulous private operators" with more of a "profit motive than an educational motive," said Gurpreet Malhotra, the CEO of Indus Community Services, a community organization in Ontario's Peel region.
"This has meant gouging tuition fees, dropping standards and generally taking advantage of a vulnerable population," said Malhotra, whose group recently published a report entitled, Invited & Forgotten: International Students in Crisis.
'Nobody is helping'
Ritik Sharma, another student from India, said he had asked CDE College for a refund last May, after waiting more than a year for his study permit.
He shared emails from the college in which they respond with the same stock answer, blaming the refund delays on COVID-19. The school won't tell him when or how much of his $15,000 will be reimbursed, he said.
"I'm so depressed," said Sharma, who lives in Lohian Khas, which is also in Punjab.
Sharma tried to apply to another college in Ontario, but his study permit was rejected. Unlike CDE College, his tuition fees for that school were refunded within a month.
With his studies now on hold for two years, his parents advised him to pursue a business program in India instead, effectively ending his dream of studying in Canada.
His parents are also concerned they may never see their money reimbursed.
"Nobody is helping," said Sharma. "They are so worried. We don't have any option. We can't do anything."
In an email to the CBC, Bryan St-Louis, a spokesperson for Quebec's Ministry of Higher Education, said the ministry is "aware of the situation regarding fees" and a followup is being done to "ensure that institutions quickly reimburse students."
St-Louis stressed, however, that because the college is private, it is ultimately the students' responsibility to get back their money.
Headed to Toronto
Determined that her studies would not be derailed, Kaur took out student loans so she could apply to another college in Toronto and is taking online courses. Her study permit was accepted so she will likely come to Canada for the winter session.
But the news is tinged with guilt and sadness about her parents' savings and the uncertainty around whether they will get a refund.
Every night, her mother asks her if there's any news. Her mother is trying to stay positive, Kaur said, but inside, she said she knows she's "broken."