University Canada West
University Canada West
ANALYSIS

International Students are Coming to Canada Dreaming of a Better Life. Many Are Leaving Disillusioned and In Debt.

For many international students, the dream of Canada sold to them by predatory recruiters and private education institutions doesn’t measure up to reality.

Jiratchaya Piamkulvanich remembers visiting her sister last summer and witnessing her live a calm, thriving life in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

“She kept telling me about the richness of the city’s landscape, the better quality of life and most importantly, higher wages in Canada,” Piamkulvanich recalled.

But when Piamkulvanich began her studies at the University of BC in September 2023, she discovered she could only afford to live in a small room in a basement, her tuition cost four or five times higher than domestic students, her internships were unpaid and she had restricted work hours. 

“My sister didn’t tell me about Canada’s audit inflation, the housing crisis and the shrinking job market for international students, particularly those majoring in journalism post-the online news act,” Piamkulvanich told PressProgress.

Students across the world are increasingly coming to Canada, attracted by promises of a good education, a strong career and the chance to remain in Canada following their studies. They are drawn by the country’s reputation and the possibility of gaining a permanent residency. 

International student enrollment exceeded one million mark in Canada at all levels of study at the end of 2023 – a 29% increase from the previous year. Many students, including those from India, have expressed concerns that they are being exploited by recruiters and private institutions. 

“In recent years, the integrity of the international student system has been threatened. Some institutions have significantly increased their intakes to drive revenues, and more students have been arriving in Canada without the proper supports they need to succeed,” according to a statement released by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada in January.

Balraj S. Kahlon, co-founder of One Voice Canada, a non-profit supporting vulnerable migrants, primarily students, says that there are a number of reasons why students get the wrong idea about life in Canada. 

“First, most students get inaccurate perceptions from relatives or acquaintances who earlier left for Canada. All they hear are success stories, as people do not want to tell how hard it is to sustain a living in a foreign country,” Kahlon told PressProgress.

“Second, nowadays, social media is a huge influence; people post only fun and aesthetic elements rather than sharing their realistic day-to-day experiences.”

Kahlon adds that predatory agents know how to sell students a dream in order to get their money. 

“Agents from their home countries, especially in India, paint an inaccurate picture by promising students acceptances, safety and permanent residencies,” Kahlon said.

The pitch put out by these agents is straightforward. First, get a student visa in Canada – the institution does not matter. After that, obtain a postgraduate work permit that lets you live and work in the country and then apply for permanent residency. 

One student from India, whose family fell victim to these promises, said: “My father approached a private agent in Amritsar, and we had to pay him a few thousand Indian rupees.”

“He said I am intelligent and would get a well-paying job after graduating with a business degree in Canada,” Seerat Preet Kaur, an international student pursuing a master’s at University Canada West, told PressProgress.

Kaur, who works part-time in a meat shop, said that the agent had persuaded her father and husband by suggesting she could find a job upon moving to Canada. After relocating, Kaur realized life in Canada is lonely, challenging and expensive. 

“But things were different – I had to take a break from university since I had financial issues and was feeling stressed,” Kaur said.

Kaur adds that her family trusted the agent’s words and before she knew it, she was starting a new life somewhere unfamiliar. “I don’t know how it happened, and it all happened so quickly – there was no time to think about it,” Kaur said.

BC is the second most popular destination in Canada for international students after Ontario. However, over the past few years, obtaining a better standard of living compared to their home country, which was once possible for some students, has become increasingly rare.

Piamkulvanich said that she could see herself working in Canada after completing her studies only with the financial support of her parents.

“Living is expensive, and even when I start working full-time, I cannot manage my rent and living expenses without my parents’ support,” Piamkulvanich said. 

Kahlon says the best advice for students is to complete an undergraduate degree in their home countries.

“Usually, problems arise when students come right after high school. They are young, vulnerable and unaware of their career aspirations. Comparatively, students who move to Canada for their post-graduate studies are better at handling difficulties—housing, work, tuition fees and cultural differences—that arise with moving,” Kahlon said. 

“Students don’t even realize the differences between private colleges and public universities. In some instances, private colleges do not qualify for a work permit, and I have seen students who have signed up for contracts without knowing what they’re getting into,” Kahlon said. 

Kahlon said the biggest challenge students encounter is finding a job that qualifies them for permanent residency. He said that students resort to illegal activities to earn the right to stay. 

“They have asked me to loan them $10,000–$15,000 so that they can pay their employers and get a job on paper. For instance, they will be labourers but get a managerial position on paper to apply for permanent residency. It is for documentation purposes,” Kahlon said. 

Recently, Kahlon encountered a student who converted his study visa to a work permit. “He dropped out of school as he couldn’t manage the tuition expenses with the limited work hours. Now, he is a full-time employee.” 

Starting in September, international students will only be allowed to work for 24 hours a week off campus, down from a maximum of 40 hours, Immigration Minister Marc Miller announced in April in the latest reform to bolster the integrity of Canada’s international student system.

“To be clear, the purpose of the international student program is to study and not to work,” Miller said.

Abhinav Bindra, another student hailing from India, said he decided to move to Canada after being inspired by his brother’s travel and diverse food experiences.

“Now, I realize it is expensive to do this stuff. Moving to Canada between 2016-17 is far different from 2024–25. It is impossible to pay your bills by working for only 20 hours a week,” Bindra, who is pursuing a masters in business administration at the University Canada West, told PressProgress.

University Canada West tuition is $40,635 for its master of business administration program and international students are expected to pay a deposit of $7,900, whereas domestic students have to pay a $500 deposit. 

The average rent in Vancouver for a two-bedroom apartment is $2,181, with the lowest vacancy rate (0.9%) among the country’s major cities, according to a Rental Market report by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) in January.

In both cases, Piamkulvanich and Bindra’s successful family members hope for their siblings’ success, but the changing economic landscape is making it increasingly difficult for students.

Unlike many advocating for more hours, Kahlon agrees this is the right direction, as the students should focus on studies rather than hard labour. 

“Similar to reducing work hours, the government should lower international students’ fees. The federal government reduces work hours while the provinces keep raising tuition fees, making it harder for students to follow this new regime. If there is a restriction on work hours, then there should be a reduction in the cost of tuition,” Kahlon said. 

In the 2023-24 academic year, international undergraduate student tuition is about five times higher on average than domestic tuition, according to Statistics Canada. The data also shows that international graduate tuition is three times more expensive than domestic tuition.

Kahlon suggests that the BC government bring a similar cap to Ontario, where private colleges cannot accept international students. He suggests shutting down private colleges as they do not provide quality education. “These private colleges particularly target young students from rural India and give them false hopes,” Kahlon added.

A report by CareEdge Ratings, India’s credit rating agency, reveals that education loans disbursed by Non-Banking Financial Companies (NBFCs) for students to pursue studies in Canada grew almost five-fold in three years, from ₹1,426 crore in March 2021 to ₹5,183 crore in June 2023.

“Everything comes down to money.” 

Kahlon said though there are discussions on better ways to support international students and help them deal with socio-cultural issues, a counsellor once told Kahlon that financial issues are often the root cause of social issues. 

“If we are trying to help international students, reducing their financial burden would be the ideal step.”

 

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Megavarshini G. Somasundaram
Labour Reporting Intern
Megavarshini G. Somasundaram is PressProgress' 2024 labour reporting intern and a Masters of Journalism student at UBC.

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