When Sonali Sharma graduated from Grade 12 in her village in Haryana, India, her future seemed clear: coming to Canada as a student, getting a work permit, then getting her permanent residency. 

Sharma’s father, a small-time farmer, mortgaged his farm and borrowed money from relatives to pay $11,000 in tuition fees.

But after starting the program and realizing she had been misled, Sharma decided to withdraw and ask for a refund. The college refused, leaving the 19-year-old without the money to seek admission in a new institution, putting her future in Canada in limbo. 

Her story is not unique, says Balraj Kahlon, the co-founder of One Voice Canada, a non-profit organization that helps vulnerable international students. 

Kahlon says many private colleges in B.C. use unethical business practices to refuse international students their refunds.

A man wearing a turban stands outside in a city square.
Balraj Kahlon is the co-founder of One Voice Canada, a non-profit organization that helps vulnerable international students. (Kiran Singh/CBC)

“When [the student] wants to leave and get their money back, the colleges just push back. They’ll even be deceitful,” said Kahlon. 

While there is a complaints process for students that may result in refunds, critics say there is a lack of government oversight for private colleges that, in their view, prey on international students eager to find a way in to Canada.

‘Google it, yaar

Sharma, whose real name is not being used by CBC News due to her precarious immigration status, says she had hoped to enroll in a publicly funded school, but the immigration consultant in India told her she wouldn’t get in.

He directed her towards Granville College, a private institution in Vancouver she had never heard of before. 

Sharma enrolled in a hospitality management program at Granville but things started going sideways when the program began in September 2022. 

During her first class, when a student asked the teacher on how to write their assignments, Sharma said the teacher told the class to “Just Google it, yaar [buddy].”

A sign taped to a window outside Granville College outlines COVID-19 protocols.
Granville College is a private institution located in Vancouver. (Kiran Singh/CBC)

Sharma also says the hour-long classes only lasted about 10 minutes. 

“I had no words to say at that time because I had so many fantasies about the studies, about the college,” said Sharma.

Sharma says she was promised by Granville that after finishing two semesters, she would be able to transfer to Vancouver Community College, a public institution. But when she inquired with that college, Sharma says she was told that would not be the case.

That’s when Sharma decided to withdraw — ten days after her program started. 

Delaying the withdrawal process 

Sharma says when she asked to withdraw from Granville, she was told a specific form would be sent to her from the institution to fill out and submit. After waiting for two days, she called the college and was told she would get the email in two hours.

When Sharma still hadn’t received her withdrawal paperwork, she started emailing the college, sending nine emails between Sep. 21 and Oct. 9, 2022. 

The college never replied. 

This is when Sharma got in touch with Kahlon, and he took over the case. 

The college did finally reply to Kahlon, offering Sharma a $900 refund, claiming she had only paid a portion of her tuition fees, though her receipt shows she paid in full. 

Kahlon says this is a familiar tactic.

“Some of these colleges start finding creative ways to bring down the amount that they [students] are owed for a refund,” said Kahlon. 

In a statement responding to these allegations, Granville College told CBC News the college has “addressed her concerns and settled this issue amicably.”

Manpreet Kaur, an international student from Punjab, India, enrolled in another private institution, Vancouver Career College, for a six-month program. She hadn’t been able to find work after her two-year diploma and hoped the program would help her land a job. 

Kaur’s classes were supposed to last four hours but soon after the course began, the class time started shrinking. 

Then, Kaur says, the teacher started canceling classes outright. 

Emails reviewed by CBC show that at least nine classes were canceled between March and June 2021, citing technical difficulties, snow storms, and ear infections. 

A woman, whose face is obscured, reads a letter from Vancouver Career College.
Manpreet Kaur says Vancouver Career College demanded that she pay the remainder of her tuition fees after she withdrew. (Kiran Singh/CBC)

“I felt like my money was going to waste,” said Kaur. 

Like Sharma, Kaur decided to withdraw, and contacted student services on June 7, 2021. She got a reply saying the college director will get in touch with her.

“The college director never came in touch with me, she never tried to reach out,” said Kaur.

So, Kaur sent another email to student services requesting to withdraw from the college on June 17, 2021, and heard back a week later. 

The college accepted her withdrawal, but demanded she pay the remainder of her tuition fees, $9,704.28, citing the enrollment agreement that if she has “taken more than 30 per cent of the course, [she] will be responsible for 100 per cent of the tuition.”

This is when Kaur became aware of Kahlon through a friend, who then took over her case and started emailing the college. 

Misleading students

The college claimed that the refund was based on the student’s last day of attendance, June 24, not the date she requested a withdrawal a week earlier. It also calculated the refund using the scheduled class time instead of actual instruction time. 

But then, Kahlon says, the college simply stopped responding. 

“We were just waiting for weeks and weeks on end, and I realized that we’re not going to get anywhere,” said Kahlon. 

CBC News contacted Vancouver Career College with these allegations but was told that “due to privacy, [they] do not comment on individual student information.”

On Dec. 19, 2021, Kahlon and Kaur filed a claim with B.C.’s Private Training Institutions Branch (PTIB), a part of the Ministry of Advanced Education that ensures that institutions act legally. 

A view outside of the Vancouver Career College building.
Vancouver Career College has several campuses in B.C. (Kiran Singh/CBC)

During the proceedings of the PTIB, the college repeated the same arguments. 

The college argued that the “refund calculation was based on the student’s last day of attendance, not the date of withdrawal,” and that the “calculation of the hours was based on the total scheduled hours from contract start date to the student’s last day of attendance.”

“Their arguments were really nonsense, but it really highlighted what little regard they had for the authority that regulates them,” added Kahlon. 

On June 2, 2022, the PTIB ruled that Vancouver Career College had “misled the complainant in relation to the number of hours of instruction provided.”

The decision reads that “the Institution had cancelled approximately 18 per cent of the scheduled hours of instruction without providing a substitute teacher or scheduling a make-up class.”

Kaur was off the hook for the $9,704.28 the college claimed she owed.

The PTIB also ordered the college to refund some tuition Kaur had already paid to the school; a total of $2,775 was refunded out of $4,109.

Veiled threats

Kahlon says some colleges go one step further with their tactics. 

“They’ll give a veiled threat that if they don’t comply … it could pose risks for their permanent residency,” said Kahlon. 

That is what happened to Sonali Sharma. 

During Kahlon’s email exchange with Granville College, the college emailed Kahlon saying “they may have to report the student to immigration authorities.”

Her family in India was also threatened, Kahlon alleges.

“I got a call from the student’s father in India, the agent in India found out she was trying to get a refund and was giving her family a hard time, telling them she could get deported,” said Kahlon. 

Hands holding an Indian passport.
Sonali Sharma alleges that Granville college said they would report her to immigration authorities after she withdrew as a student and asked for a refund. (Kiran Singh/CBC)

Kahlon says after exhausting Granville’s dispute resolution process, one of the requirements for PTIB, he and Sharma filed a complaint against the institution in January 2023. 

But soon after, Khalon says, the immigration consultant in India paid Sharma’s family another visit, offering them a deal – the consultant would reimburse the family $10,000 if Sharma withdraws her case with the PTIB. 

Since then Sharma has withdrawn the case but has yet to see any money, and is gearing up to file a human rights complaint against the college. 

Lack of government oversight

In British Columbia alone, there are 279 private institutions that can host international students, known as designated learning institutions (DLI). 

Mikal Skuterud, a professor of economics at the University of Waterloo, says the problem lies with Canada’s “two-step immigration” system where private schools bring in international students as “temporary residents” creating a pathway for them into the country, to possibly become permanent residents. 

“Now you have a system in which it’s possible to run a post-secondary institution that, in fact, doesn’t really teach,” said Skuterud. 

Kahlon adds there is a lack of provincial and federal oversight for private colleges. 

When CBC requested comment from Sean Fraser, Canada’s minister of immigration and citizenship, CBC was directed to the B.C. government. 

A bearded man smiles.
Mikal Skuterud is a professor of economics at the University of Waterloo. (Submitted by Mikal Skuterud)

Selina Robinson, B.C.’s minister of post-secondary education, declined an interview request, instead sending a statement saying that “if any student feels they were misled by a private institution, they are able to file a complaint with the PTIB.”

CBC’s request to interview Kenneth Affleck, the PTIB commissioner, was also declined saying his role “is not to oversee the PTIB’s regulation of the private training sector.”

Current process unsustainable 

From withdrawing from the program to getting her refund, it took Kaur more than 13 months, which Kahlon says is not sustainable for most international students. 

“A lot of these migrants, they really need the money now. Some of them literally are living hand to mouth.”

Kaur, whose primary reason for withdrawing from Vancouver Career College was the lack of instructions and canceling classes, echoes Kahlon’s sentiments.

“They’re just selling diplomas. You just bring your tuition fees and you’re getting a diploma,” Kaur added. 

As for Sharma, she is trying to enroll in another school but has no money to pay for her tuition. 

While she is unable to legally work in Canada because she is presently not enrolled as a student, she is working under the table. 

“I spend eight to nine hours at my work in the hope that after getting the pay I’ll be able to deposit my fees and I will restart my studies,;it’s my main purpose that I came to Canada.”

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