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Friday, November 23rd, 2012

Hey George…here comes the Judge !

So George Brown College got caught.

More than one hundred students, most of them international students, won their class-action case against the publicly funded Toronto college for what an Ontario Superior Court judge called “negligent misrepresentation” in misleading them as to what were the true opportunities, experiences and teaching value of an eight month long business program.

It’s normally the private sector getting called out for misleading consumers. Rare stuff to see a public company, let alone a well established major public college called onto the court’s carpet. But there is nothing surprising about what George Brown got caught for. The common achilles heel for colleges is working with thousands of education agents around the world, where many of them are known for, and sometimes even documented for, unscrupulous behaviour. But here it seems the college was out front in an aggressive and misleading sale (although you can draw pretty strong inferences that George Brown’s agents were pleased enough to play along. After all, they recruited the majority of students for the program).

This stuff goes on every day around the world, as George Brown and thousands of colleges and universities feign obliviousness to what their contracted representatives are saying and doing on their behalf. It’s just very unusual that a publicly-funded college was patently, not willfully blindly involved in misleading students and moreover, that there were any consequences this time. In this case it may be expensive for the College (the judge is still to rule on damages).

In fact Ontario Superior Court Justice Belobaba was far too easy on the College in calling this “one occasion they were careless and made a mistake”. Fact is, for years George Brown has contracted with a plethora of education agents overseas who operate in arenas where misrepresentation and fraud are the norm, and not the exception. This was not a small number of students lodging a complaint. This was a serious class-action challenging the very integrity of what George Brown stands for.

Of course in this matter George Brown did what all institutions do. Admit no mistakes. Never assume accountability. Avoid to the fullest extent possible any liability. The College’s lawyers argued that a “reasonable student” would perform enough due diligence to know more about the program they are applying for.

Is this the same suggested level of due diligence which George Brown performs on the hundreds of agents it contracts with around the world ?

The students had no chance to go after the education agents who very likely happily sold them the wrong goods, and who get away with almost anything in their home environments which are often rife with corruption. George Brown, like most of its college and university colleagues in Canada and around the world, are just as aloof to any responsibility and consequences (I remember the time a Canadian Visa Manager in Delhi once telling me how they caught an agent red-handed in forging documents, only to have the Canadian college client tell the Visa Office to lay off their agent !).

The last few years have seen institutions and even governments band together to create regulations and “official” bodies in an attempt to certify education agents. The results thus far liken these efforts, in Canada – and elsewhere – to window dressing, utter self-interest, and rubber stamping the route for a full speed sales pitch and damn the buyer.

It seems that the only check and hope for instilling integrity in all this are the courts. Full credit to the students who successfully coordinated and funded an effort to make a major Canadian institution accountable for its false claims. Let’s hope more judges will hear and assess the ethics and actions of academic institutions engaged with international education. Perhaps, nothing will better stir those sitting in ivory towers, then a Canadian court decision making institution decision makers accountable for negligent business practices.

“The Edge” is written by Mel Broitman, Director of the Canadian University Application Centre (CUAC) and a partner in the international education strategies company, Higher-Edge. More of his columns are found on Overseas, Overwhelmed at “The Edge” section.

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