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Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

SPP. Magic Carpet to Canada?

Spending as much time in India as I do, these days I hear the term “SPP” so often it seems like an old record skipping again and again and again.

Students tell me they could go to university, but they are off to colleges in Vancouver, Edmonton and Toronto instead. Why the diploma versus a degree ? “Because the agent told me the student visa is guaranteed with SPP”, they say.

“I don’t want to go to a University,” say many high school graduates with good grades. Why not ? “Because SPP is for colleges, and so I will go there.”

SPP which stands for the Student Partners Program, has replaced “P-R” as the most popular letter combination in the Indian state of Punjab. “PR”, or Permanent Resident status in Canada may be the goal for tens of thousands of Punjabis, and now, “SPP” is the gateway.

The Student Partners Program which is an arrangement between the Canadian visa office and selected Canadian community colleges, attempts to address the problems of high visa refusal rates by having colleges sign off on a list of accountability in terms of who they admit and invite to Canada.

It was not intended as proclamation of a guaranteed visa, but education agents found ubiquitously in Punjabi shopping malls and office complexes, spout SPP as if it’s a magic carpet ride to Canada. Whether or not the sought after increase in student visa numbers from India will be realized, there is no doubt that SPP is driving a significant growth in study permit application numbers pertaining to college programs.

SPP is so prevalent that many students whose stated goals were for degree programs are ignoring universities altogether, and applying for the colleges’ diplomas, and there will also be real concerns as to whether many of the SPP candidates are prospective students at all.

“It’s been an onslaught of applications that we were not expecting nor able to cope with,” said a recruiter at a major college in Toronto. “The volume was overwhelming.”
“In doing a little road trip around the Punjab in March, I was surprised at the lack of interest students had in our program, and yet almost all of them were keen to apply,” said another college recruiter from western Canada. “It will be instructive to see how many of the students applying under SPP for May actually convert to registrants and how many arrive only to request a refund.”

There is no doubt that Canadian community colleges have a lot to offer India and the world in terms of applied education. But with such a seemingly high proportion of students not truly interested in the programs and schools to which they apply, is this group of students intending to be working underground in Canada and out of school? The SPP is supposed to include checks and balances including college reporting of student arrivals, but will the system be executed well enough to dissuade students without bona fides in the future?

“It’s going to blow up in Canada’s face,” said one experienced recruiter for a Canadian university. “What happens when these kids won’t be able to find work afterwards and have a bad impression of Canada.”

SPP was an answer to mounting pressure on the Visa office to address why student visa refusal rates were as high as 90% in Punjab. The issue became politicized and MPs and MPPs ended up pressing for a ways to rectify the situation. But the situation is by no means easy to correct. There are large numbers of unscrupulous individuals and organizations (education agencies, immigration offices, and others), who see the Canadian study permit process as an easy mark for getting persons into Canada with no intention to study there. Without a strong process for screening education agencies and for punishing those who participate in misrepresentations, there is a great deal of room for abuse. Moreover, colleges (and universities for that matter), in the main perform little due diligence on agency partners, or the diligence is weak and the follow-up lacking rigour.

It is ultimately in the interest of the college sector, as well as in Canada’s higher education sphere more widely, that Canada’s reputation for quality over quantity, be maintained. It is important to understand that percentage acceptance rates relate principally to the calibre of the applicant pool. There may be instances where visa offices and officers are not applying immigration regulations consistently. But to criticize visa offices holus-bolus for high refusal rates is akin to criticizing hockey officiating for too many penalties in a game filled with infractions.

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About Mel

Mel 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 award-winning CBC reporter and holds a Masters degree from Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.

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