BY MATTHEW FISHER, POSTMEDIA NEWS OCTOBER 26, 2012
Canada stands to benefit greatly from an immigration program that, since 2009, has been fast-tracking thousands of prospective residents who have done post-secondary studies in the country.
But there are perils for Canadian academia and for the excellent reputation of Canadian educators if some students are only seeking to exploit the new rules to avoid the usual immigration checks and enter Canada through a back door, rather than to gain an education.
The question arises because foreign students now have the right to work while studying in Canada and for as long as three years afterwards and, for the first time, they can apply for permanent residency from within Canada.
It is a live issue in India because thousands of students from here come to Canada every year to study and many more are likely to want to come.
London's Metropolitan University provides a troubling example of what can go wrong when a school focuses on foreign students. Two months ago, the U.K. Border Agency revoked its "highly trusted status." This denied the school, whose patron is Prince Philip, the right to sponsor visas for students from outside the European Union. Those foreign students already studying there had their visas revoked. This was devastating for Metropolitan because nearly half of its 22,000 foreign students come from overseas, according to the London Daily Telegraph.
The order to stop taking foreign students came after the Border Agency concluded that the school could not prove if many of its foreign students could speak English.
The saga of Metropolitan's phoney students may be a cautionary tale for Canada.
Until now, Canada has only accepted 7,000 people in the Canadian Experience Class program, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said last month. But the government's goal is to welcome 200,000 foreign students over the next 10 years. Most of them would have what amounts to preferred status to make application from within Canada to permanently reside in Canada.
I attended a students' fair offered last week by the Canadian University Application Centre near New Delhi. The joy expressed by those at the event who learned that they had been accepted into one of the 12 Canadian institutions of higher learning was contagious.
Students coming to Canada from not only India but many other countries get a good deal. They benefit from an education at such respected universities as St. Mary's in Halifax, Bishop's in Quebec's Eastern Townships and Victoria. Moreover, tuition costs less in Canada than at comparable institutions in Britain or Australia and a fraction of what it costs to undertake similar studies in the United States.
Nevertheless, it is clear from speaking with some of these kids - as well as university admission officers from Canada on a five-city tour of India - that the key attraction of such programs for many of them is that it allows them to gain Canadian work experience at the same time they study and almost guarantees them permanent residency in Canada when their studies end.
Canada gains bright, motivated, well-educated young immigrants more attuned to the ways of the country than other prospective newcomers who have never worked or studied within its borders. The presence of so many foreign students whose educations have not cost Canadian taxpayers a penny also preserves the jobs of some professors and teachers. This is a big help at a time when crippling budget deficits are pushing up tuition fees and forcing colleges and universities to make ruthless choices about what to chop.
Still, hanging over the process is the question of how many "students" bound for Canada are genuine. One of the complications confronting admission officers is that it is especially difficult to judge students' transcripts if they are from countries such as India, where standards vary widely and bogus documents of every kind abound.
Admissions officers visiting India last week acknowledged that they were acutely aware of the danger of dumbing down Canada's academic standards and that measures were in place to ensure that this does not happen.
But more than half of Canada's foreign students enrol at community colleges, not universities. Whether the same standards apply at all these colleges is another matter entirely. The federal government must ask hard questions about who is accepted to study based on what marks and whether attendance is closely policed. There are rumblings that grave problems exist at colleges that have accepted a large number of foreign students.
To preserve the quality of higher education in Canada and to avoid tarnishing the country's reputation in the booming and highly competitive international education market, the government must ensure that schools not only regard foreign students as a financial bonanza, which they are, but that maintaining high educational standards is paramount.
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