The woman who answers the phone (in Cantonese) at the America Institute of Technology seems confused when I ask, in English, when classes start. “Who are you?” she asks. I tell her that I’m calling for a friend. “We’re not a school,” she replies. “We’re immigration consultants.” Now I’m surprised. The institute’s website, where I found this phone number, advertises one- and two-year diplomas in computer science and hospitality. Tuition ranges in the thousands. But, she insists, she’s never heard of the American Institute of Technology (AIT). She says her firm Yi-Jia Immigration Consultants Ltd. helps people (often from Hong Kong, she says) immigrate to Canada.
When I call again a week later (these phone calls occurred last year), whoever answers the phone is much less confused. “You want to register for classes?” she asks when I say I’m calling about AIT. She forwards me to another woman who says her name is Adelle, but won’t reveal her last name after I say that I am a journalist. She confirms that AIT catered to international students. She says it was associated with Yi-Jia Immigration but hasn’t offered classes since last year. “Do you realize the website is still advertising classes with the same address and phone number as your firm?” I ask. “That must be a mistake,” she says.
The America Institute of Technology is just one example of a unique Canadian gift to higher education: the barely-regulated private college. Some, like AIT, target overseas students, offering them a chance to get into Canada — but for a price, and often under dubious pretenses. Others promise diplomas and degrees to Canadian students that the school is not legally able to offer. They prey mostly off low-income people who may be unemployed and looking for new opportunities during hard economic times.
In a Toronto Star investigation published in September, undercover reporters enrolled in two unregistered schools; one reporter was promised a job as a security guard at Pearson Airport if he paid $262 for a one-day training course. The job never materialized. Another reporter enrolled in a two-week, $480 course and earned a diploma as a personal health care worker by watching DVD videos and reading Wikipedia handouts.
What’s so bad about these schools? For Canadian students, illegal colleges are taking advantage of people’s desire to better themselves and their economic circumstances by charging high fees in exchange for useless credentials and a disingenuous promise of employment. Schools that cater to foreign students are a whole different ballgame. They are not only duping students but also the federal government (which grants student visas) and the public (who trust that students entering Canada on visas are coming here to study at a legitimate institution).
Dubious colleges also hurt the reputation of the public post secondary education system.
In 2007, the Times of India cautioned readers about the “perils” of studying in Canada. “A group of Indian students who traveled across the globe in pursuit of their MBA dreams are living their worst nightmare,” the Times reported about the students of Vancouver’s Landsbridge University. The school closed in 2007, leaving several hundred international students out of pocket for their tuition and with their student visa status uncertain.
In 2006, the government of China went so far as to release a statement advising students to avoid studying at private institutions in Canada, after reports of separate education scams in B.C. and Ontario. The warning, entitled “Don’t Apply to Canadian Private Schools Blindly,” noted the dangers of substandard programs and a lack of protection for international students enrolled in them. The government of South Korea issued a similar warning in 2006.
These colleges advertise openly online and in ethnic media. Considering how blatantly they run their illegal operations, many critics have expressed frustration at how lax regulation is. But in Ontario, it seems that the provincial government has finally woken up to the problems these unregulated colleges pose. The Star reported this week that the provincial regulator charged with penalizing private colleges running illegally has levied its first fines against a school, a move the newspaper characterized as “a dramatic change of policy.”
The Toronto School of Music on Bayview Ave in Toronto has been fined $36,000 for granting unauthorized degrees in music, and ordered to stop advertising and refund graduates of the school. Students paid $15,000 to $20,000 a year for instruction and most were Chinese students who received student visas from the federal government even though the school was illegal. Prior to 2005 private colleges were not required to register with the government. The Toronto School of Music first opened in 1997, and claims it was unaware of a requirement to register.
But, as has been shown again and again in British Columbia, cracking down on these schools doesn’t always lead to them shutting down. These are elusive beasts, changing names and locations and sometimes existing only on the Wild West of the Internet.
Take the example of Vancouver University Worldwide. In 2007, the B.C. Supreme Court ordered the school to shut down, the latest effort to regulate the illegal university in a 15-year dispute with the province. In court, the province said that the private university, with offices on Beatty Street in Vancouver, was breaking the province’s Degree Authorization Act by offering degrees without permission. But the university’s president Raymond Rodgers said that the school did not operate in B.C. “We don’t conduct degree programs in B.C.,” Rodgers said. “The degrees are printed in other jurisdictions and signed outside of B.C. and have been for some time.” Degree ceremonies also take place outside the province.
In these cases, the question becomes: how do you define where a university operating online is? With the rise of distance education made possible by the Internet, you can take an array of classes from just about anywhere, from Nunavut to the Queen Charlotte Islands. While correspondence courses can be very convenient, the lack of physical campuses of some institutions is making it difficult to pin down just what jurisdiction a university is located in, and what laws apply.
So Rodgers ignored orders to close for over a decade and there wasn’t a hell of a lot that anyone could do about it. Colin Yip, owner of the Toronto School of Music, seemed to be echoing Rodgers’ sentiment in his comments to The Star when he said that he had no intention of refunding tuition to past students.
Now, multiple the problem by thousands. In B.C. alone, there are estimated to be more than 650 private post-secondary schools servicing over 165,000 students. Some are legitimate institutions offering a real education. And some appear to be nothing of the sort. In Ontario, according to The Star, “just 10 inspectors are tasked with the job of policing the 445 licensed schools across Ontario, with enrolment of about 27,000 students. Those same inspectors are also responsible for unlicensed schools that number 1,000 or more.”