Nova Scotia·CBC Investigates

Universities spend big on recruiters in scramble for foreign students

Universities in Atlantic Canada have turned to international students as an antidote to dwindling enrolments. Documents obtained by CBC show institutions are now spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on third-party agents.

Atlantic Canada universities turn to international students in bid to boost enrolments

International students now make up more than half of enrolment at Cape Breton University. (George Mortimer/CBC)

When Sahjanand Rai decided his educational future lay on the other side of the world, he did what many high school students do in his home province of Gujarat, in India. He hired an agent.

He'd been encouraged by his father to move abroad for university, both to gain more knowledge and to grow as a person, and after much research settled on Memorial University in St. John's.

When it came time to complete the actual paperwork, he needed help but was determined to avoid immigration scams he says are commonplace in India. He shopped around and found a recruiter paid for by Memorial.

"You're going to a new country, right? So you require a lot of documents which you might not know," Rai said in a recent interview in St. John's, where he's a computer science student. "The agents are familiar with this kind of process."

As universities in Atlantic Canada scramble for international students as an antidote to dwindling enrolments, many are now spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on third-party recruiters in a highly competitive market.

Paid either flat fees per student or commissions often based on first-year tuition fees, agents are enticing students from everywhere from Bangladesh to Belize and have become essential tools keeping some universities afloat.

Sahjanand Rai, a computer science student at Memorial University in St. John's, used an agent when he decided to leave India and study in Canada. (CBC)

It's also a practice some schools are reluctant to talk about. Saint Mary's University in Halifax, for instance, refuses to disclose any information about contracts or fees for agents, citing the potential "to jeopardize the financial or economic interests" of the university.

But documents obtained by CBC through freedom-of-information legislation show other universities and colleges in the Atlantic region have contracts with dozens of recruiters to draw students from nearly every part of the world.

Cape Breton University, where international students now make up more than half the student population, spent $1.1 million on agent fees in 2017/18, more than double the year prior.

It's turned out to be a lucrative investment. Gordon MacInnis, the university's vice-president of finance and operations, said earlier this year there's been a "revenue lift" of $7 million for the school.

Understanding the recruitment of international students at universities in Atlantic Canada

3 years ago
Duration 1:16
Here's a look at how the process of recruiting foreign students works. Plus, a snapshot of the data collected by CBC News showing the number of full-time visa students and how much some universities have spent on agent fees.

Agents say their involvement benefits both universities and students, helping students unfamiliar with the Canadian university system learn more about their options, particularly in Atlantic Canada.

"When Indian students come to us, the first question they ask is, 'How far are you from Toronto,' or, 'How far are you from Vancouver.' So what we have been trying to do is actually explain to them about Atlantic Canada," said Vijay Bhashyakarla, a Halifax agent who runs Canada Education Connect.

Sreehari Challa, left, and Vijay Bhashyakarla run Canada Education Connect Inc., an agency that recruits students from India for several schools in Atlantic Canada. (Vijay R Bhashyakarla)

Canada Education Connect recruits students from India for Atlantic institutions such as Dalhousie, which paid it roughly $10,000 in fees between 2016 and 2018, and the University of New Brunswick.

Agents also have an interest in making sure students stick with their studies. Most contracts viewed by CBC showed that universities only pay agents once a student can no longer withdraw their tuition, usually a month into the semester.

"We want to mentor them throughout the year and the student life cycle," Bhashyakarla said.

For many agencies, including Canada Education Connect, this is the only money they make from recruitment. Students are not charged.

Students protested last week a planned fee hike for international students at Dalhousie University. International students pay significantly more than domestic ones. (Robert Short/CBC.)

It's a cost universities struggling with declining domestic enrolment and decreased government funding are willing to pay, as international students have become integral to their financial stability. In the case of Cape Breton University, for instance, international student tuition has outstripped government funding as a source of revenue.

In 2017/18, Dalhousie reported a $3.8-million increase in tuition revenue "largely as a result of increased international student enrolment," according to the university's annual financial report.

Still, those financial benefits don't go unchallenged. Dalhousie has been accused of balancing its budgets on the "backs of international students" by hiking their fees. In Cape Breton, many foreign students have struggled to find part-time work. Some are reportedly turning to the food bank.

International students and advocates speak with Ivan Joseph, Dalhousie's vice-provost of student affairs. (Robert Short/CBC)

Dalhousie's contracts stipulate agents get a 10 per cent commission for the first five full-year students enrolled, and 15 per cent for every additional full-year student. In 2018, this would make the commission roughly $1,800 for a student pursuing a bachelor of science and enrolled in five courses per term.

Memorial University pays third-party agents a flat fee of $1,100 for an undergraduate student, and up to $2,000 for a graduate student.

Universities also employ in-house recruiters who aren't paid commissions.

CBC requested records from universities with either a high number or large proportion of international students. Only two — Dalhousie and Memorial — agreed to disclose unredacted contracts with information about commission fees.

Lloyd Henderson, assistant vice-president of enrolment and recruitment for UNB, said universities in Atlantic Canada are vying with an increasing number of institutions around the world recruiting international students. 

With fewer students coming from New Brunswick, the university is trying to remain economically viable. Third-party recruiters, he said, provide the school a foothold in new regions it wouldn't have otherwise.

"I don't know of any major institution that is not recruiting internationally. It's a very competitive landscape."

Saint Mary's University refused to release any information about contracts or fees for agents, citing the potential 'to jeopardize the financial or economic interests' of the university. (Robert Short/CBC)

But distance can also make oversight a challenge. Many of the contracts CBC was able to view stipulate agents must represent the universities accurately and in good faith. At least one university — CBU — has had to cancel contracts because agents were misleading students, either about the university or what to expect in Cape Breton.

Thais Della Nina, who recruits from Brazil for schools such as the University of Prince Edward Island, said students are often making huge sacrifices to attend Canadian schools. She worries some agents take advantage of them.

"Brazilians sell houses, everything, to come to Canada, so it's disrespectful if [agents] give them wrong information," she said. "But I know a lot of people look at this as a regular business — 'I sell courses, that's all' — and don't have responsibility for the information they give to students."

Shona Perry-Maidment, the deputy registrar at Memorial University, said the school keeps the number of agents it works with low (between 11 and 15) and vets them carefully.

"We get references, preferably Canadian references, from post-secondary institutions," she said. "Once they are hired and once we feel that they're acceptable to us and our needs … we actually do a lot of outreach to those agents.

"It does not serve us well if [students] are not getting the information they need to make an informed decision."

When it came to his own search, fearful of unscrupulous agents, Sahjanand Rai looked at four or five agencies before settling on one.

"It's better to be prepared," he said. "You should know that the consultancy you are going to is legitimate, it's not going to run away with your money and documents."

He said his choice of university has turned out to be the right one, and the agent was helpful in getting him there.

As for his parents' hopes that he'd become more self-sufficient — travelling 10,000 kilometres for an education has certainly helped with that.

"I had to start from zero, right? I had to make new friends, to find my own job, I had to make my own food, nobody is going to help me here, so I knew this. I was prepared mentally, so this process was very easy for me, to be honest," he said.

"It was the right choice for me."

With files from Karissa Donkin