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Monday, September 16th, 2013

A wrong turn for Canada’s Study Permit system?

Having called for increased vigilance over fraud in the Study Permit system for years, I applaud the recent objectives of the Canadian government. Requiring greater accountability is great. But in mixing immigration and education, the Government is enabling the exact formula which has led to most of the fraud and abuse.

In terms of execution, I am troubled by one turn the Government has taken in its requirement that even international student advisers who do not claim fees for doing so, or those paid salaries by educational institutions to do so, might well be expected to become members of the Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council. The proposed regulatory changes states:

“The proposed reforms are intended to address program integrity concerns by ensuring students are studying throughout their period of authorized stay in Canada, and attending quality, genuine educational institutions. It is anticipated that these measures will help reduce instances of fraud within the program, improve overall services to international students and educational institutions, and strengthen Canada’s overall image as a study destination of choice for prospective students.”

There are two primary types of abuse with which the federal government contends.

The first has always been as much a primary worry for institutions. Students genuinely wishing to study may use faked documents or misrepresentations to strengthen their claim for admission (or scholarship), i.e., the basis for getting a Study Permit. The fact that too few institutions have invested in applying enough scrutiny here is a subject for another day, but it is part of the backdrop for the Government’s increasing attention upon institutional accountability.

The other type of abuse, involves what I call “purported students”, one which institutions in the main have given little if any attention. While an institution takes every application as if it is a genuine one, it is far from the case that every student entering Canada on a Study Permit, actually conforms to the permissions granted by it. Significant numbers of individuals enter Canada on Study Permits, where their true motives are not to study but to work underground, to travel to the U.S., to marry, to remain, or at the far margins engaging in criminality and even state security considerations.

The second of these is obviously the government’s paramount anxiety.

What the federal government should be doing is driving a deeper wedge between the “immigration consultant” world and the “study permit” world, and not bringing the two closer together. While the Study Permit application permit is not absolutely easy, it is easy enough that in fact most students except in countries with abundantly high fraud rates submit the application themselves without the use of a lawyer or immigration consultant.

Ask Canadian visa officers in countries where abuses of the Study Permit are rampant to what extent are immigration consultants part of the problem. Does it mean immigration consultants are necessarily bad – certainly not. Does it mean immigration consultants who participate in fraudulent activities can readily get licenced as such in Canada – absolutely they can. Given that is the case, where is the upside in commanding those who are not immigration consultants to pass licencing exams, and pay annual fees to a body that offers barely a semblance of relevance to them, and no meaningful comfort to the government?

What about the downside? Well, how about this one which any overseas immigration officer can confirm is commonplace in high fraud countries. An individual with a weak academic pedigree and/or a poor Study Permit profile (age, financial capacity, etc.) walks in to an immigration consultancy (which may or may not be licenced in Canada) and says, “I want to get to Canada.” The consultant determining that the Study Permit route is the easiest, works to fabricate the documentation necessary to pass muster. Sound familiar? Indeed, it is exactly the problem identified above that is the government’s biggest worry. Immigration consultant offices in countries where abuses are the worst are exactly the primary places individuals turn to when looking to deceitfully enter Canada (or other countries).

Citizenship and Immigration ought to be doing all it can to encourage precisely those who are not immigration consultants to be the ones who are advising students. It is more likely that those who are not immigration consultants are the persons least likely to attract the wrong crowd or to go rogue and try to engage in fraudulent activity to benefit themselves.

What is the alternative? The federal government can easily prepare an on-line course, and require any persons giving advice to complete it, and indeed to be on the mailing list of updates affecting proper service. It can also command registration of a variety of particulars, biographic, corporate, and others that give it a working registry against which it can fact-check at any time. It could use this as a further communications mechanism to continuously remind and warn as the case may be of misbehaviour which will elicit serious consequences. The registry link could also be included in communications with student applicants in which they could be reminded of their rights as well as the implications for themselves, if they were acting fraudulently or not aware of what was being done in their name.

University and college employees, while not beyond the risk of participating in fraudulent behaviour are certainly in the lowest of risk categories. Those working for Canadian institutions themselves warrant training that is narrowly confined to the Study Permit process, and to student-related immigration regulations and policies. The Canadian federal government should ensure the same narrowly confined training is offered to education agents who do not operate an immigration consulting business. By requiring a significant measure of know-how, Canada can attract the right type of institution advisers, and education agency counterparts for the recruitment of international students, without driving genuine students to the world of immigration consultants, where the known serious abuses are most widely found.

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About Dani

Dani has consulted universities, colleges, governmental and non-governmental organizations in the field of international education since 1997. He is co-founder of Higher-Edge, the parent of Overseas, Overwhelmed, and a director of the Canadian University Application Centre. He is a former international and human rights lawyer and holds a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Toronto Law School.

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