Hyungee Bae is putting it all on the line — every ounce of energy and every cent — to study at Centennial College’s state-of-the-art aerospace and aviation campus. She’s banking on it landing her a job in Canada and, hopefully, one day, citizenship.
“My parents say, ‘I don’t know if you’re brave or a fool,’ because I’ve given up everything,” says Bae, 28, who left South Korea where she taught English and lived in the comfort of her parents’ home.
This fall, she is among the biggest cohort of international students ever in Canada. There are more than 572,000 here, a 73 per cent hike since 2014, when immigration policy changes made it easier for students who study at publicly funded institutions to work and apply for permanent residency.
Canadian education has become so lucrative that international students pumped $21.6 billion last year into campuses, communities and the economy nationwide.
Growth has been particularly explosive in the college sector. International students, heartened by Canada’s safe and welcoming reputation, have been drawn to the college system’s focus on job skills and training. In fact, enrolment of international students in colleges surpassed universities for the first time in 2018, with students choosing college as a cheaper and potentially faster route to post-graduate work and immigration.
A joint project by the Toronto Star and the St. Catharines Standard surveyed all 22 of Ontario’s publicly funded English colleges and found international student enrolment rose 155 per cent over the past five years to more than 86,000 out of about 300,000 students. And while many international students seem satisfied with their educational experience, this unprecedented growth has brought significant challenges: Reporting found students struggling with English proficiency and insufficient support; and teachers feeling stressed and overwhelmed.
The influx has resulted in governments, recruiters, academic institutions and employers directly, and indirectly, profiting from international students, who are willing to pay hefty tuition fees and, in some cases, put up with abuse and exploitation, for the dream of making a life in Canada.
“International education is not an education program anymore, it is an immigration program,” says Earl Blaney, a London, Ont., immigration consultant who doubles as an education agent in the Philippines. “(Most students) are studying for permanent residence. It has nothing to do with learning.
‘It’s Canada’s gold rush and everyone is in this game.”
Bae sits in the lobby of Centennial’s Downsview Campus Centre for Aerospace and Aviation, overlooking a hangar filled with aircraft.
The $72-million campus, which includes a drone lab, was funded by federal and provincial government grants and the college’s own cash surplus generated by international enrolment. It opened earlier this year, creating instruction space for about 1,000 students, tripling the size of the program.
Bae, whose tuition this year is $20,400 for the aviation technician-aircraft maintenance program, compared with $5,300 for domestic students, looks admiringly at the “high-tech” surroundings.
“I spent this much money and if the facilities aren’t good I’d be disappointed,” says Bae, who chose college over university because fees are considerably less and programs shorter. “I know all the money we pay goes to the campus. It’s like a business for the college.”
Virginia Macchiavello is a driving force behind the growth at Centennial, which boasts the highest number of international students at any Ontario college. They make up half of the college’s 28,000 student population.
“(I’ve been) accused of being an entrepreneur — not in a good way,” says Macchiavello, associate vice-president, international education, business development. “But we really do believe in education.”
Revenue from international students has allowed the college to make capital investments, expanding and updating campus facilities. Just last year, Centennial generated $210 million in revenue from tuition of international students, and the college ended the 2018-19 fiscal year with a budget surplus of $59.6 million. It also has a $33 million endowment fund — created in part by using 1 per cent of international revenue — to pay for scholarships and academic programming overseas.
A dozen years ago, when Linda Franklin became president and CEO of Colleges Ontario — an advocacy group representing the province’s public colleges — campus facilities were far from the gleaming, light-filled structures they are today.
“A lot of these colleges had very sad buildings,” she says, recalling 50-year-old portables. “That was their reality. And I remember at the time one president saying to me, ‘We’ve got to fix this because a post-secondary student has to feel when they walk in the doors that they’re walking into some place that matters.’ ”
This transformation is, in part, being financed by international students in a province where domestic enrolment is declining. Ontario college revenue is largely made up of tuition and government grants, which on a per-student basis are the lowest in the country and not keeping up with rising costs of the system. To supplement their income, colleges have turned to international students, whose education is not subsidized by taxpayers and who typically pay up to four times more in tuition than their domestic counterparts.
At St. Clair College in Windsor-Chatham, the 2019-20 budget shows for the first time that international student tuition is the largest source of revenue, with a projected $71.8 million. By comparison, operating grants are $41.3 million, and tuition for its budgeted 7,600 domestic students is about $24.3 million. This fall, the college, which has seen its population of international students grow from just about 500 in 2014 to 4,200, increased tuition for new international students by 15 per cent.
Ross Romano, minister of training, colleges and universities, says the province wants schools to be entrepreneurial, adding, “The more revenue they generate, the better the institutions they can be.” He welcomes the growth in international students and hopes they consider staying in Ontario, noting, “We have an economy that’s booming.
“(International students) know they are going into a place where they are going to get a quality education, a world-class education, and they know there’s an opportunity for a great job at the end of that education,” he says. “When people are working, everybody wins.”
John Tibbits, president of Conestoga College in Kitchener, says local labour market demands have been a driving force in the college’s outreach to international students. And college surveys show about 80 per cent of Conestoga students have consistently indicated they plan to stay in Canada.
The revenue they generate has been a lifeline, given the drop in domestic enrolment across much of the sector because of a declining birth rate and high school students choosing university over college. Administrators point out international students aren’t taking seats from domestic students — they’re sitting in seats that would otherwise be empty.
“We would have faced significant downsizing … if we hadn’t gone to the international market,” says Tibbits. “We’re filling a lot of programs that we would have probably had to cancel.”
Increased enrolment from international students has allowed the college to deliver more programming, also benefiting domestic students. For instance, in 2018, Conestoga expanded its Waterloo campus, and in Brantford it purchased three buildings, and leased two, allowing it to grow enrolment there from 100 students to more than 1,000 this fall. And in a record year, Conestoga hired about 90 full-time faculty and staff, mostly front-line workers delivering student services.
Enrico De Francesco, who teaches hospitality at Ottawa’s Algonquin College, says when he started there in 1989, all his students were domestic. Now, about 90 per cent of his first-year students are international.
“A lot of colleges saw this international opportunity as the goose that lays the golden egg,” says De Francesco, who represents the college’s school of hospitality and tourism for Ontario Public Service Employees Union Local 415.
“It’s a business, right? Schools run based on the funding and money they can make. If there’s no funding, they have to find their money somewhere — and international students are a good draw.”
At the end of the first week of school, Bae is exhausted. She wakes at 6:30 a.m. to head to campus, and she waitresses late into the night at a Korean restaurant to cover tuition and rent. She’s also mentally spent, having to concentrate extra hard in class since English isn’t her first language.
“(If) there are words I don’t understand I have to look it up, so it takes more time than domestic students.”
Bae is determined to succeed. After all, she uprooted her life in Seoul, where she got an architecture degree and taught English to children after school. She has chosen a program she hopes will lead to good job offers and eventually permanent status, since graduating here garners extra points on a residency application.
But to get into the workforce, she first needs a diploma — without it she can’t apply for a post-graduate work permit.
That’s a big reason international students graduate at much higher rates when compared with domestic students. According to the Star’s analysis of colleges, 89 per cent of international students graduated in 2018, compared with 69 per cent of domestic.
Franklin of Colleges Ontario believes the difference is largely because domestic students can quit school to work — something international students can’t legally do.
“The single biggest factor, particularly in an economy like this that’s pretty hot — and we have it in spades in the trades — is that these (domestic students) get poached by companies that are desperate for trained labour,” she says. “There’s no need to finish the program because some company is going to hire you. And in some cases, they’re hiring you at a great salary, so you can get a house and a mortgage and a snowmobile and a car. And, so why would you go back (to school)? We constantly face that challenge.”
Tibbits of Conestoga suggests higher grad rates are also because many international students already have post-secondary experience. In fact, according to a 2016 report by the non-profit Canadian Bureau for International Education, the number of international students enrolled in Toronto colleges who had a university degree was 50 per cent, compared with 18 per cent of domestic students.
Ama Osaze-Uzzi, 29, graduated in the spring from George Brown College’s social service worker program. She already has an undergraduate degree in banking and finance from the University of Abuja in her native Nigeria and a master’s degree in management and international business from Birmingham City University in the United Kingdom. With poor job prospects in the U.K. and Nigeria, she started over in Canada, where she hopes to become a permanent resident.
“The (program) has been fantastic,” says Osaze-Uzzi, a week before graduation day. “It’s given me a different perspective on how to support people.”
But graduation rates don’t reveal the whole picture — some of the students are really struggling. Many are just squeaking by to get their diploma.
Teachers say there’s a push from administrators to boost marks for students to get them over the line so that they pass.
“There is enormous pressure for all parties to keep (all) students moving through as a result of chronic provincial underfunding,” says RM Kennedy, chair of the college faculty division at OPSEU, which represents more than 40,000 faculty and staff at colleges. Kennedy, who also teaches at Centennial, says colleges’ financial needs are “trumping” standards.
“Grade inflation is very much part of the system,” says Ravi Ramkissoonsingh, a psychology teacher at Niagara College, who’s also president of OPSEU Local 242, which represents faculty there.
A Niagara College spokesperson said it was not aware of this happening. And a Centennial College spokesperson said it “would never direct faculty to unethically inflate students’ grades under any circumstances.” Franklin, of Colleges Ontario, doubts teachers mark international students more leniently: “I think that would go to the integrity of the program.”
Last year, Niagara teachers raised the alarm when an unusually high number of international students seemed to be performing far below expectations, despite having passed mandatory pre-admission English-language testing. The college ordered those students be re-evaluated for language proficiency and offered them support. Other colleges have since retested their incoming students.
Algonquin’s De Francesco believes the problem lies with language testing done overseas, far from the oversight of Canadian officials. His international students have told him you can pay others to write the test or pay off exam proctors.
“If you saw the level of English that I’m dealing with you’d be saying to yourself, ‘How is this person in post-secondary?’ They can barely express themselves.”
He says essays contain paragraphs that are one long sentence, lack punctuation and are peppered with misused words because students run text through online translators.
Comprehension is also a problem. He recalls an incident at a student-run restaurant that’s part of the hospitality program in which a customer requested a dish and warned of a shellfish allergy. The student nodded, as though fully understanding — then served up a dish with shellfish.
“It’s frustrating to see these young people fail,” says De Francesco, adding some families make big sacrifices so they can afford to send their children here. “Financially, the college needs them. But at the same time, we have to be ethical. We can’t just start accepting every Tom and Jane into the program because they’ve got the tuition to come and they’ll get their visa.
“We want all our students to be successful and knowing that these students don’t have the communications ability … They’ve got a losing hand.”
Given the language barrier, De Francesco says many domestic students balk at the idea of group work, so he’s removed it from his law class. He used to team up international and domestic students, but the domestic kids would end up doing all the work. And if he let groups assemble on their own, domestic students would stick together and the international students would end up submitting something subpar.
“If I had a dollar for every domestic student that’s come up to me and said, ‘No group work. I do not want to do group work’ … I wouldn’t have to teach.”
He also says faculty spend more time supporting and meeting with international students after class, and are so busy trying to keep them afloat, they don’t have enough time for domestic students: “That frustrates us … We want our domestic students to be successful, too.”
Algonquin, like other colleges, runs workshops for teachers on how to help international students succeed, which he welcomes and would like to see expand.
Romano, who became minister in June and recently met with all of the province’s college and university presidents, says he has not heard any concerns about students struggling with language proficiency, or about teachers feeling inadequately supported.
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But Kennedy of OPSEU says the exponential growth of international students in Ontario colleges is one of the biggest issues for its members.
“Our members have talked about the stress and impacts of the influx of students,” says Kennedy. “We are not prepared for this. There are not enough front-end services to support these students with housing and counselling in their transition.”
Teachers say some international students don’t even show up regularly to class because they’re so busy working, often graveyard shifts, at places such as coffee shops, convenience stores, fast-food joints and hotels. International students in publicly funded, post-secondary institutions are legally allowed to work 20 hours a week during the school year.
Conestoga, like all colleges, monitors attendance as required by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.
“I don’t want to sound like we’re an elementary school, but if people miss class we follow up,” says Tibbits. “We don’t want people to come here and then sit around, hoping they’ll get Canadian citizenship even if they don’t attend class.”
Absences can also be an early indicator of physical illness, mental health issues, financial woes, housing problems and academic struggles.
“Some (students) are overwhelmed,” says Tibbits. “They’re in a foreign country, with a lot of different rules and they’re under a lot of pressure … If they’re making an effort and struggling, then we’ve got to find every which way to help them.”
Without family nearby, international students tend to spend a lot of time on campus, so the college has, for instance, ramped up food services, and extended library hours.
For Jessica Urdangarin, the supports at Seneca College weren’t enough. A few years ago, she and her husband bought into the dream of immigrating here from Brazil after hearing on the news and at education fairs that Canada was flush with jobs. They saved money, sold their car and packed up their belongings. She applied to Seneca and got a student visa, which allowed her husband to accompany her on an open work permit.
When they arrived in 2017, she says the college provided little support in finding housing off-campus, and the $1,200 she was told to budget for rent was less than what landlords were asking. The couple eventually found a unit, after door-knocking, for $1,800.
Urdangarin, who already had a communications degree, entered a two-year social service worker program that cost about $30,000. Her husband, who has a degree in business administration, got a “survival job” in a warehouse. But it wasn’t enough for them to survive. So, Urdangarin took a job restocking store shelves, from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m., before heading bleary-eyed to school. The juggling act took its toll, and after three months she quit working.
“It was really overwhelming. By the end of the second semester I had a real anxiety crisis,” she recalls, adding failure was not an option. “I left my home country, sold everything and I need to succeed.”
Urdangarin says some teachers didn’t understand that the language barrier meant it could take three times as long to complete assignments. And basic questions to college staff about post-graduation work permits and scholarships were met by “misinformation.” She says she was never told that her bachelor’s degree could earned her transfer credits, which would have saved her money. Nor that she didn’t have to pay for private health insurance because she was covered by her husband’s OHIP.
A Seneca spokesperson says the college doesn’t comment on individual cases. But it is sorry to hear about Urdangarin’s complaints, noting its goal is to ensure all students have a positive experience. “Moving to Canada from another country can be a difficult and challenging time,” says Amar Shah. “We take every measure to make the transition as smooth as possible for international students.”
Information about services are online and employees are ready to help with questions on such topics as studying English, housing, visas and scholarships, says Shah. He notes that all students are told about transfer credits in their admissions package.
Alex Usher, president of consulting firm Higher Education Strategy Associates, doesn’t think international students are getting great value for their money. He says there aren’t enough services for them on campus, and doesn’t think teachers are sufficiently trained to deal with culturally diverse classes where students have various learning styles.
“We’re throwing them in the deep end,” he says. “We’re scraping the easy money too often and not investing in the services that make it good for them, which means, I suspect, in a couple of years those sources may dry up because those students talk … Word of mouth matters.”
For now, Randine Fogarthy is spreading the good word about Canada, even though her early days were difficult and she’s still without a job in her chosen field. She came from Jamaica to attend Centennial’s community development program, which she graduated from in the spring. During her first months here she slept on a friend’s couch, felt homesick and slumped into depression.
“It was painful,” recalls the 24 year-old. “It was just an adjustment, overall, to this whole new country … I’m not used to seeing other people that don’t look like me.”
Fogarthy begged her mom to let her return home, but was encouraged to stick it out. She eventually made friends. She immersed herself in campus life, joining the student union. And she became an international student ambassador, showing newcomers the ropes, such as how to take the TTC, and where to look for jobs.
“I wanted to be that person that could help them along — the way I wanted to be helped when I first came.”
In a bustling office at Centennial College’s Scarborough campus, staff are busy promoting the college to the world. At the helm is Macchiavello, leading a recruitment team of 80 in Canada and 80 abroad, who work out of 12 foreign offices.
When she started at Centennial in 2007, studying in Canada wasn’t a pathway to residency. Back then, students were coming to Canada’s career-focused colleges to learn skills to meet the labour needs of their own countries.
Today, they’re coming here to meet our labour needs, spurred by the 2014 federal strategy that treats students as prospective immigrants: Students are given a visa and allowed to work for one to three years after graduation. Further policy tweaks in 2016 reward them with bonus points when they apply for permanent residency. Since then, immigration applications from international students have skyrocketed, and the number accepted has risen from 30,000 in 2016 to 54,000 in 2018.
Federal Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen says there’s no cap on the number of international students allowed into Canada — it boils down to demand and the capacity of schools to accommodate them. But not every study visa application gets accepted.
“We are confident in the fact that this is a demand-driven system,” he says, adding he expects schools are providing “good-quality education for both Canadian and international students.
“We are fortunate to be increasingly the destination of choice for international students who want to come and spend their dollars here, who want to add to our institutions, who want to add to our classrooms — some of whom stay.”
Those who arrived in late August at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport were greeted by Destination Ontario kiosks set up by post-secondary schools and municipalities to provide guidance.
Exhausted from a 20-hour flight from India, Dhwani Bhatt, 27, was delighted to see the welcoming ambassadors as she cleared customs. She already has a master’s degree in electronic and communication engineering. But she’s come for a one-year cybersecurity program at Centennial that costs $17,000.
“Cybersecurity is a booming field and Centennial College has a top-notch program,” she says. “I’m so excited to be in Canada. It’s my dream to visit this country. I look forward to a new start in Canada.”
Students left the airport in all directions. And while most headed to GTA colleges, there has been a greater pull to far-flung communities.
Just last year, for instance, international student enrolment at colleges such as St. Clair in Windsor-Chatham, Cambrian in Sudbury and Canadore in North Bay basically doubled over the previous year.
At Northern College in Timmins, attracting international students is crucial for a region where population decline is accelerated by young people moving away. There, international student growth has skyrocketed — in 2011 there were none, while this year they comprise about 42 per cent of the college’s 1,600 students.
“We’re very invested in ensuring they stay,” says Audrey Penner, vice-president academic and student success at Northern, “that they settle in the north, take up work or begin a business.”
It’s a sentiment Immigration Minister Hussen has heard across the country: “Their ability to help the local communities, to fill unfilled jobs, contribute to local economies, is one of overwhelming success and the feeling of the community is, ‘We want more.’ ”
Still, there have been challenges. In Windsor, for instance, the influx of international students at St. Clair led to complaints from residents worried areas were turning into student ghettos, with homes bursting at the seams with too many occupants. Parking and transit were also becoming issues.
“There were growing pains,” says Ron Seguin, the college’s vice-president, international relations, campus development and student services. “International education is a market and the market is not totally predictable.”
The college is building a second residence with 512 beds and has expanded housing services. It has also worked with the transit authority to add more buses.
Durham College in Oshawa has capped international students at 15 per cent of total population to give it time to build up capacity and supports.
At Centennial, and elsewhere, there’s a push to diversify the pool of international students. The first reason, says Macchiavello, is to ensure a global experience for all students and enrich the classroom experience. Secondly, hosting students from one region is risky, since various factors — think geopolitics, economics, conflict and natural disaster — could impact the flow of students.
A few years ago, when the Ebola crisis hit Africa, St. Clair suddenly lost 100 international students because they couldn’t get through the visa process due to health concerns. That’s why the college is setting aside revenue to mitigate future risk in case of a similar event.
Centennial is reducing the number of students from India. Two years ago, 57 per cent of all international students were from there, last year it was 43 per cent and the goal is to get that figure down to 33 per cent by 2022. Meanwhile, it’s boosting the number of students from countries including Vietnam, Brazil and China.
“Geopolitics is big,” says Macchiavello, noting the diplomatic dispute between Canada and China over the arrest of an executive of telecom giant Huawei. “Some of the colleges would be in big trouble right now if China closed its doors because of Huawei.”
Uncertainty in the U.K. over Brexit and the perception that the Trump administration is unwelcoming have also prompted students to choose Canada.
Back on Centennial’s Downsview campus, Bae says she didn’t consider any other country. Canada was her number one pick. She knows studying here with the goal of attaining residency is a gamble — there’s no guarantee. But it’s a chance she had to take.
“I might regret it if I don’t get permanent residency or if I have to go back to Korea,” she says. “But I would regret it if I never started this.”