Nisha Rani was raised by her mother and brothers in the city of Ludhiana in northern India after her father died when she was a teenager. After graduating from university she wanted to give back to her family. Rani, now 28, wanted to immigrate to Canada through a student visa as a way to permanently settle in the country, find work and financially support her family.
Instead, her visa application was denied and she lost thousands of dollars after becoming a victim of an alleged fraudulent international student recruitment scheme.
“When my visa got rejected after all the hassle that I had to go through, it left me in immense pain,” said Rani from her home in Punjab Province. She says she had thoughts of suicide after the ordeal. “I had painstakingly nurtured my dream to go to Canada for years – just the way a mother nurtures a child.”
Shady recruiting practices
Rani is one of the hundreds of foreign students whose education has been put in limbo by a Quebec investigation into the recruitment methods of private colleges.
After Rani completed her bachelor’s degree in education, she passed her International Education Language Testing System (IELTS) exam with a 6.5 score, which was a sufficient mark to apply to both public and private colleges in Canada. Her immigration consultant recommended she enroll at a private institution — M College in Montreal, Quebec. Her family took out a loan and paid nearly $15,000 CDN in fees. While she waited for her visa, she took online courses from M College for 10 months, studying through the night to adjust to the 12-hour time difference between Ludhiana and Montreal. Then she found out last August that her Quebec acceptance certificate was no longer valid.
M College still collected fees from Rani eight months after the Quebec government had suspended it from accepting students. In December 2020, an investigation into M College and nine other designated learning institutions (DLI) was launched to scrutinize questionable recruiting practices, leaving thousands of international students under dark clouds of uncertainty.
M college, CDE College in Sherbrooke and CCSQ College in Longueuil, have filed for creditor protection. The three colleges are all owned by the Mastantuono family — under the umbrella name RPI Group.
In February, the High Commission of India tweeted that it had been approached by several Indian students affected by the “closure of these institutions,” and was in close contact with both the federal government and Quebec provincial government and elected Canadian representatives from the Indian community. The commission told students to contact Quebec’s Ministry of Higher Education if they had difficulty securing reimbursements and advised students to check credentials of foreign colleges before making payments.
— India in Canada (@HCI_Ottawa) February 18, 2022
After mass protests both in Jalandhar, in Punjab province, as well as in Montreal, one immigration consulting agency refunded full fees to some students, but more than 500 other students like Rani are currently fighting in court to get their money back.
Rani’s initial application to study in Canada was approved in principle, but after the M college audit began, her visa was rejected. Immigration and Refugee Citizenship Canada (IRCC) stated she wasn’t eligible to enter Canada because of her “educational background.” In response to questions from New Canadian Media, IRCC said that private colleges under investigation for “recruitment fraud” continue to be processed but will be subjected to extra scrutiny.
“Additional checks and verifications may be needed by officers in order to reach final decisions in those cases,” said IRCC in an email. Immigration officials acknowledged that prior to the fraud investigation, only a small fraction of students who got initial approval to study in Canada were denied visas.
For instance, more than 49,000 applicants received first-stage approval for studies in the fall of 2020, and only 90 were ultimately refused, according to the IRCC.
Recruiters shortchanging foreign students
Rani’s case highlights the questionable practices of immigration consultants in India. She was among eight people interviewed by NCM this month who were impacted by the fraud investigation in Quebec’s private college system.
“When we approached these students in the outskirts of Montreal, they were in a very bad shape emotionally. They had nowhere to go and no support in this foreign land,” said Varun Khanna.
Khanna, the co-founder of the Montreal Youth Student Organization (MYSO), said the group is advocating for students by writing letters to elected officials in both India and Canada.
Thousands of consultants in India’s Punjab state are part of the Association of Consultants for Overseas Education (ACOS). Although the association has a code of ethics, the industry for the most part is unregulated and consultants don’t have to be legally certified.
“There is a hidden competition among these consultants on who mints the maximum revenue and I don’t think they care about where the student is going to study or what is the future of these students,” said an immigration consultant source who has more than a decade of experience recruiting students in both Canada and India. NCM has agreed not to disclose his name but has verified his identity so he can speak candidly about the inner workings of the system.
The consultant says a recruiter gets a 20 per cent commission for enrolling a student in a private college, more than double the rate of registering them in a public institution.
“What has happened in Quebec hasn’t surprised me by an inch,” said the consultant. He points to a photo of college executive Caroline Mastantuono posing with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Three private colleges currently under investigation were once run by Mastantuono.
“Her picture in saree with Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau is enough to lure thousands of students in India who have this cherished dream of coming to Canada. Call this — the best marketing strategy ever,” he said.
Mastantuono operated these colleges under her recruitment firm Rising Phoenix International. She had previously worked at the Lester B. Pearson School Board for 27 years until she was fired in 2016 under a cloud of controversy.
According to RPI’s court filings for creditor protection earlier this year, each student paid up to $30,000 to attend its colleges. 633 students have requested refunds totalling $6.4 million. In addition, $5 million in tuition fees have been paid by students waiting for a decision on their study permit application. One month after asking for tuition fees for the next semester, the colleges filed for creditor protection.
Reimbursements for students
Sukhman Singh, a student at M College, says his immigration consultant advised him to pay his third-semester fees at the beginning of his second semester. When he questioned the “exorbitant fees” Singh says college officials threatened to cut off access to their online learning platforms.
“We don’t have much money in our pockets. We work part-time to pay off our education loans — how do you justify this behaviour?” Singh asks.
According to the latest statistics from 2019, Indians account for 34 per cent of the more than 642,000 international students in Canada, well ahead of the 22 per cent from China.
That same year more than 13,000 Indians obtained a study permit in Quebec, an incredible 500 per cent increase from two years earlier as first reported by Radio-Canada.
Another reason the province is an attractive destination for foreign students is that it is easier to get a work permit in Quebec.
According to a survey by the Canadian Bureau of International Education, 60 per cent of foreign students intend to apply for permanent residency. Post Graduation Work Permit (PGWP) for International Students is an essential document to get permanent residency. If students want permanent residency, they need to pick an area of study that will eventually earn them enough points through Canada’s Express Entry immigration system.
For admission to public post-secondary institutions, students require an IELTS score of 6 and above, but private colleges admit students with scores below a 6, making them more accessible to students abroad. Also students in private colleges in Ontario aren’t eligible for a PWGP but they are in Quebec.
The MYSO is calling on regional and national governments in both countries to take action. The MYSO has organized demonstrations demanding reimbursements for students in both Montreal and Jalandhar and is hopeful newly elected officials will fix the recruitment system.
“From Punjab’s side, we have a lot of expectations from this new government of AAP and Bhagwant Mann to increase vigilance on these consults and ACOS body. Our protests in Punjab are still on,” said Khanna.
In the meantime, the group is also hoping to meet with Jagmeet Singh to raise awareness of the issue in Canada.
Read here NCM’s policy on using pseudonyms or anonymous sources.
This story has been produced under NCM’s mentoring program. Mentor: Judy Trinh