STUDENTS FOR SALE
The Walrus|September/October 2021
International students are lied to, cheated, and exploited on multiple fronts. They’re also propping up higher education as we know it
NICHOLAS HUNE-BROWN

BIBIPUR

THE SINGH FAMILy home is a one-storey building of brick and cement on one of the main streets in Bibipur, a village of 1,000 in Punjab, northern India. The house has cracks in its walls and a roof of wood and mud that leaks during monsoon season. It was built about sixty years ago, and every decade or so since, whenever government workers have repaved the road outside the house, they’ve simply added another layer of asphalt on top of what was already there. Over time, the road has grown higher and higher, and the house has seemed to sink in contrast.

Kushandeep Singh was born here in 1999, and by the time he was a teenager, the house sat well below grade. Whenever it rained, water would stream in off the road and the family would rush to try to hold it back as best as they could with brooms and buckets.

Like just about everyone in Bibipur, the Singhs are farmers. The family owns a small plot — twelve acres of wheat and rice with a few cows and buffalo. On warm days as a child, Kushandeep would run off with his friends and bathe in the same pond the cows lolled around in. As landowners, the Singhs were far from the poorest in town, but they were a long way from wealthy. Fourteen people lived in the three-bedroom house: Kushandeep, his younger sister, and his parents in one room; one set of grandparents in another; and his uncle, aunt, and cousins in the third.

The family’s biggest investment by far was Kushandeep. Most of the kids in his village learned while sitting on the floor of the local government school, but Kushandeep’s father insisted on sending him to the nearest city, Patiala, to attend a private school with basketball courts and a cricket pitch and instruction in English. “My father never compromised on my education,” says Kushandeep. The tuition alone cost almost a third of the family’s income.

His father hired a rickshaw to ferry Kushandeep an hour to school each way, picking up other students en route. Over the years, on long rides down dusty highways, Kushandeep would sit back and watch the billboards float past — an ever-shifting window into the world outside Bibipur. When he was young, all the ads were for local restaurants and stores. As he grew older, billboards for multinationals like McDonald’s followed. Finally, as Kushandeep neared the end of secondary school, a new product began to appear: postsecondary education in Canada.

A decade ago, few people in rural Punjab were thinking about schools in Canada. It was a cold, mysterious place that didn’t hold much appeal. “But, in the past five or six years, it’s become a hot topic,” says Prithvi Raj, a student in India who was preparing to study overseas when he spoke with me. “Canadian education is being sold like hotcakes. You don’t even have to sell it — people will just come and buy.”

The product being advertised on billboards in Patiala is the same one that thousands of recruiters are hawking at education fairs in Beijing and private-school visits in Rio de Janeiro: a new version of the Canadian immigrant dream. The pitch is straightforward. First, get a student visa to study in Canada — the specific school doesn’t particularly matter. After that, get a postgraduate work permit that lets you live and work in the country for up to three years. Then apply for permanent residency. When described by a seasoned recruiter, the process seems simple. Details about what to study, or the actual odds of becoming a permanent resident, aren’t important. What’s important is the idea that, if you run that gauntlet, you can build a life beyond anything you could dream of in a place like Bibipur. “Every student is going to these agents and saying, ‘I want to go to Canada,’” says Kushandeep.

At eighteen, Kushandeep was a baby-faced teenager with big brown eyes and a thoughtful, earnest way of expressing himself. He did well in school, though not as well as some of the richer kids in his class. His English was improving, but he had never left the state, let alone the continent. He had one distant cousin on his father’s side who had studied in British Columbia. But, as far as he knew, not a single person from his village had ever gone to school overseas. When Kushandeep did well on his English proficiency exams and education abroad began to seem like a real possibility, his family considered borrowing money from every relative and friend they knew. But the numbers didn’t add up. For an international student, tuition at a Canadian school started at $20,000 a year, excluding the cost of living. In a good year, if the harvests went well, the Singh family earned about $9,000 in profit. Eventually, it was decided: the family would mortgage their farm.

Students like Kushandeep have complicated the usual picture of international study. The 2000s-era stereotype of the pampered young foreigner, usually from mainland China, who drives flashy sports cars and shops for Gucci bags between classes was always a caricature, but now it’s entirely divorced from reality. In 2019, 34 percent of the more than 642,000 international students in Canada were from India, well ahead of China’s 22 percent.

Many of these students are from Punjab, and they generally attend small community colleges, not internationally renowned universities. A recent study by Rakshinder Kaur and Kamal jeet Singh, professors of education at Punjabi University Regional Centre, surveyed students attending an English- language training school in preparation to study abroad: 80 percent came from farming families, most from small farms. When asked where they wanted to study, 78 percent said Canada. Mortga ging land to cover tuition has become common, with more and more families literally selling the farm to send their children to community colleges.

These students are driving an international education industry that has exploded in recent years, their numbers tripling in the last decade. Today, Canada says it’s the third most popular country for study in the world behind only the United States and Australia. In press releases and reports, the federal government brags that foreign students bring over $21 billion into the economy each year — more than auto parts, more than lumber. Those numbers are the result of a decade of careful nurturing, a triumph of salesmanship, and carefully calibrated government policies.

International students are also the product of a system that has blurred the lines between immigration and education in an unofficial, ad hoc arrangement meant to appeal to potential immigrants while avoiding any responsibility for their settlement. It’s a system that is quietly transforming postsecondary institutions, which have grown dependent on fees from foreign students and therefore on the shadowy world of education agents who deliver them. And it’s a system built on attracting teenagers like Kushandeep from small villages across the world, taking their money, and bringing them to campuses from small-town Nova Scotia to suburban BC with lofty promises for the future but little regard for what actually happens to them once they arrive.

THE AGENTS

WHEN KUSHANDEEP wanted to figure out how to begin a life in Canada, he did what everyone does: he went to an education agent.

These salespeople aren’t difficult to track down in India. “You could find an agent shop on every corner, on every street, on every road,” says Kushandeep. One agent I spoke with put their numbers in the tens of thousands in India alone, though there is no way to know the exact figure — it is a largely unregulated business, open to anyone.

Agents connect students like Kushandeep with postsecondary institutions overseas. They often find the school, complete the paperwork, and apply for the visa. Despite this, they’re generally not paid by the students but by the institutions. Schools aren’t often forthcoming about their commissions, but multiple agents told me that the industry standard is 15 to 20 percent of a student’s first year of tuition — a rate that can net them anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000 a head.

It’s a commission the institutions are more than willing to pay since it will be recouped by an international tuition close to five times higher than domestic fees. Today, attracting overseas students is a financial imperative. The result is a booming secondary economy built on top of the international student market, with immigration consultants and recruiters mushrooming up around the world.

Mel Broitman can remember the business in its infancy. In the mid-1990s, when the former CBC journalist began his education-consultancy company with his lawyer friend Dani Zaretsky, the market in Canada was modest. He explains that China was sending a few thousand students a year. There was the odd European. “When we first started working, in ’97, there were maybe 400 Indian students,” Broitman says.

Broitman started building his business in Bangladesh, travelling to elite high schools and giving his little presentation about life in Canada. “It was sleepy times,” he says. Over the next two decades, he watched the evolution of what’s now a multibillion-dollar industry. In the early 2000s, he went to China — for decades the single biggest source of overseas students — and saw a potential goldmine. Agents, he says, were double-charging, taking money from students as consultants and then taking commissions from the institutions. They were falsifying grades, faking English proficiency tests — anything to get kids into a Canadian school. Broitman was appalled. He remembers calling up his partner and asking facetiously, “Dan, you want to make $3 million a year, cash? We only have to be a little bit crooked.”

In 2011, Canada attracted 239,131 students. It was around this time that the federal government decided it needed to double that number in the next decade. In “International Education: a Key Driver of Canada’s Future Prosperity,” the 2012 report that would become the blueprint for the country’s strategy, the authors urge the government to act quickly. “We believe Canada is facing a unique window of opportunity that requires coordination of our promotional efforts.” These students, the report argues, are necessary to address skilled labour shortages and relieve demographic pressures as Canada’s working population ages.

The factors that make Canadian education attractive to international students have little to do with the schools themselves and much more to do with the fact that Canada is an English- speaking country, it has a reputation for safety, and most importantly, it has tweaked its immigration policies. Canada allows students to work up to twenty hours a week off-campus — a necessity for indebted students like Kushandeep. Students are allowed to stay in the country and work for up to three years after graduation. During that time, they can also apply for permanent residency. Under the Express Entry program, students enter a pool with other prospective immigrants and are given points according to a number of criteria from language skills to education to work experience. The government selects those with the most points, the cut-off changing each selection period depending on who else applies.

Adjusting those two variables, the ability to work and the pathway to permanent residency (PR), is how governments try to control the flow of students. Create a more favourable path to PR — by, for example, assigning more points to those getting a Canadian degree, as Canada did in 2016  — and you open the faucet wider. Restrict the ability to work postgraduation, as the UK did in 2010, and the market dries up.

Over the last decade, Canada has done its best to increase that flow. In 2019, 642,000 international students came to Canada — three times as many as when the 2012 report was drawn up. And, as the number of students has grown, the recruitment business has grown with it. Broitman claims that his company delivered some 6,300 students to the University of Windsor over fifteen years, worth approximately $400 million in tuition. But that figure is tiny compared to the behemoth agencies in China and India moving kids at volume. New Oriental, a publicly-traded company out of Beijing that combines private education, English tutoring, and international recruitment, has a market cap of more than $17 billion.

According to Broitman, the economics of the system reveal a fundamental truth: a student who walks into an agent’s shop is not the client — they’re the product.

If an agent is getting commissions from an unremarkable community college in rural Ontario, then their only motivation is to get every teenager who walks through their door, no matter how brilliant or hopeless, to enroll in that one college. “That’s how the business works,” says Broitman. “You just direct people to where your bread is buttered.”

The students I spoke with described fast-talking salespeople pitching an unrealistic vision of Canada and, in particular, of students’ chances for permanent residency. “They push a lot,” says Rajpreet Sohal, a student from India who studied at Lakehead University. “Even if a student is poor, they say, ‘Don’t worry, you can ask for money.’”

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