Study Permits & Uncertainty

In July 2023, IRCC Minister Marc Miller was put in charge of our immigration system and he has been focused on fixing problems while addressing the growing anti-immigration sentiment within Canada. On one side, he inherited many years of Liberal promises to welcome and support international students and to meet lofty goals. To that end, he remains committed to the goal of 485k new permanent residents in 2024, 500k in 2025 and 500k in 2026. On the other side, Minister Miller has overseen a series of decisions to cut programs, increase restrictions and add roadblocks to previous pathways. Applicants most affected: international students. Result: increased uncertainty and anxiety.

A Broken System

I would have loved to have sat in during Minister Miller’s initial debrief in the summer of 2023 to review the Study Permit system. I can only imagine how that meeting unfolded. Perhaps he was unacquainted with the relevant procedures and he asked a step-by-step explanation how a student abroad applies for a Study Permit and comes to Canada. During that initial debrief, he may have learned about:

From my limited access to Minister Miller, I imagine he left that meeting with an extreme level of frustration and a strong commitment to find solutions. To be clear, all the above points are true, to an extent. I have seen how thousands of students have been victimized and misled.

Ontario’s auditor general published a comprehensive report in 2021 that confirms many points above. As noted in the report, annual tuition average for domestic student in 2020/21: $3,228.  Annual tuition average for international student: $14,306. Also, The Fifth Estate did an amazing investigation “Sold a lie” where they travel to India and catch many agents peddling lies. It’s no wonder colleges are focused on courting students from abroad!

There are certainly many “low-hanging fruit” problems that can easily be fixed. Over the past months, we have seen many changes to the system. I will outline these changes and suggest additional recommendations. To an extent, these changes have been improvements; however, they have also caused significant uncertainty and anxiety.

Improving the Study Permit system

Over the past few months, IRCC has been slowly announcing changes to address the issues above:

I remember the press conference when Minister Miller compared Canadian colleges to “puppy mills that are just churning out diplomas.” His frustration was palpable and it is clear that he is focused on improving this situation.

Again, many of the changes have been “low-hanging fruit” problems. IRCC issued ~300k Study Permits in 2020 so the cap is largely just getting back to pre-pandemic levels. The new PAL continues the trend of downloading immigration responsibility to the provinces. Changes to the OSWP and the PGWP fix known loopholes.

These changes do not ease the current requirements that may include:

To be clear, the citations above often refer to Federal Court cases where a judge has reversed or taken issue with the Officer’s decision. The point is to highlight that, despite these decisions, Officers continue to refuse Study Permit applications on these grounds.

The key word above is “may”, of course, as Visa Officers have broad discretionary authority to focus on particular issues while ignoring others. They also know that most applicants do not have the financial means to challenge IRCC refusals in Federal Court. I have published my thoughts in detail on this last point in a previous post on Slaw.

Prof Christian has also highlighted the inconsistent jurisprudence on financial requirements on Slaw. 

Recommendations

  1. Ban agents from receiving kickbacks from colleges (DLIs)

In Canada, Designated Learning Institutions (DLIs) may pay agents or “sub-agents” to recruit international students. Consultants may receive significant payments or kickbacks from these colleges, often paid as a % of 1st year tuition, and the consultants may also receive fees from the students. Yes, these agents are getting paid from both sides of the transaction. This post suggests agents get 10% to 15% of the tuition paid by the student to the DLI.

For example:

Mr Bonito charged his client $3,000 for a Study Permit (before he lost his CICC licence).

If he got also got 10% of the average tuition, that would lead to an extra kickback of $1,430 from the DLI

Total fees paid to the agent: $4,430.

The above example is hypothetical. I could not find any cases involving agents who disclosed their commissions from DLIs.

To be clear, the average fees paid to an immigration lawyer for a Study Permit is between $3,000 to $3,500. Lawyers cannot get these extra payments from the DLI as we are bound, correctly, by Rules that prohibit these types of fees. Consultants and agents do not have such rules. For a Study Permit, they can charge the student a fee for the application and then, for the same student, they can get a commission from the private college or public university. Representing both sides of the process is a direct conflict of interest, of course. Neither CICC nor IRCC bans this conduct.

I spoke with an immigration consultant who does not accept kickbacks from DLIs. She was, however, approached by a few private colleges that offered between $700 to $2000 per student. She did not feel right about the offer so she did not accept. She knows other consultants whose businesses focus on this market. There is significant $$$ involved. She asked to remain anonymous.

Another source stated, “Some consultants ‘buy’ whole classrooms and then fill them with students making huge commissions.”

From my perspective, this is a huge issue and I believe most folks in Canada are completely unaware. I was describing this situation to a friend who pointed out that Canadian universities have limited spots for students. Each spot given to an international student through a shady agent leads to one fewer spot for a student in Canada.

  1. Publish black-listed agents

IRCC has published blanket warnings against using agents abroad. News agencies report story after story after story of the rampant corruption. As the Honourable Miller put it, the system “has become so lucrative that it has opened a path for its abuse.” The current warnings are not enough.

When I meet with victims of scams, I would love to be able to show them an IRCC website that lists shady agents, with their personal information. This would not be difficult. I have spoken with CBSA Investigators who are constantly tracking down shady agents and their victims.

On the business side, IRCC currently publishes a page of employers who have abused workers and violated immigration laws. I have referred to this IRCC website when I give presentations to employers regarding potential issues of non-compliance. It can be quite effective.

  1. Encourage the use of lawyers licenced in Canada

I hesitate to add this recommendation as it is, of course, in my own self-interest. I cannot ignore, however the merit of the recommendation. The fact is that many immigration consultants falsely advertise themselves as “lawyers”. Many agents, unfortunately, lie to their clients and put themselves out as lawyers. I cannot count the number of times I have spoken with a prospective client who describes incompetence by their “lawyer” only for me to find out they never retained a lawyer.

IRCC does the opposite. They do not distinguish between representatives and they actively discourage applicants from hiring professionals. On the government website, it states that representatives could be:

  • citizenship or immigration consultants
  • lawyers
  • friends
  • family members or
  • other third parties

I have to admit, I am mildly insulted they include consultants at the top of the list. They also include this warning:

“You should be able to fill out the forms and submit them yourself.” That’s rich. I would suggest the writer of the above spend more time with applicants and listen to the high level of frustration out there. I suppose, along the same lines, we should all be able to file and submit our taxes by ourselves. When my life was simpler, I took the time and did the research to file my own taxes. I hire a professional.

If IRCC provided sufficient support to applicants and they provided guides that were clear & comprehensive, then I could see Officers discouraging the use of representatives. The fact is the government does not provide adequate support. Clients who call the IRCC Call Centre may wait 2 to 3 hours on hold, or they may not get through at all.

  1. Prioritize applications submitted via Authorized Paid Representatives’ Portal (APR Portal)

IRCC needs to find better ways to curb the firehose of applications to Officers. At the end of 2023, they have made it more difficult to request an update or to provide additional information through the Case Specific Enquiry (CSE/ Webform). I spoke with an Officer who advised the number of CSE requests has skyrocketed over the past few years and many are simply ignored. Many self-represented applications are sent back due to missing information or other issues. This wastes Officers’ time and leads to delays and unnecessary refusals.

One possible remedy would be to prioritize applications submitted through the APR Portal, available to all licenced lawyers and all licenced consultants. This could increase the quality of the applications submitted to IRCC and potentially increase efficiency.

The critique of this recommendation is that it could create a hierarchy of applicants and raise fairness issues. Giving high priority to applications through the APR Portal may lead to longer processing of applications submitted by self-represented applicants. Two steps forward, one step back?

Potential clients often ask, “if I hire you, will I get a faster result?” I answer, “if you submit an application without any mistakes that is done properly and includes all the supporting documentation to address any potential issue, then it will be processed just as fast as if we were to submit on your behalf.”

Uncertainty and Expectations

I hope I have adequately conveyed the serious nature of this problem. I could probably write a book on this topic. This is only scratching the surface.

Yesterday, I met a student from Lebanon in my office. She is taking a 1 year study program and she has dreams of becoming a pharmacist. She applied for a work permit and it was refused. She was told by her agent in Beirut that getting PR in Canada was “easy” and Manitoba (MPNP) has the easiest path to PR status. Indeed, under the system in 2021, the agent was not wrong. Under the current system, it will be very difficult for this Lebanese student to realize her dreams.

UPDATE

Since this post was published, a Ukrainian friend shared her experience. She worked for an agent in Europe. That agent received significant commissions from DLIs in Canada and he also charged the student. He got “at least $2,000 commission per student” and there were DLIs who would also pay commissions for both the 1st and 2nd year tuitions. They would push students to the DLIs that were paying the highest commission. And then charge the student for the Study Permit.

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