Algoma University’s Brampton enrolment has skyrocketed 900% in three years thanks to international students from India who say exploitation has made them a ‘cash cow’
The new year in downtown Brampton was marked by a series of student protests at the city’s satellite campus of Algoma University. As the exploitation of international students at post-secondary institutions across Canada continues to make national headlines, the hard-to-fathom enrolment trajectory at Algoma’s local campus illustrates the fundamental problem—in just three years the number of students at the campus has grown by approximately 900 percent. Almost all of them are from India.
There is no housing provided for them and they pay more than three times the fees charged to Canadian and American students. After facing financial challenges highlighted in a 2022 report by Ontario’s Auditor General—it showed Algoma was “becoming overburdened by debt in 2016/17”—the university began a reckless strategy of admitting masses of international students from India at its Brampton campus. Its population exploded, from approximately 540 students in the 2020/21 academic year, to 5,372 currently—a nearly 900 percent increase in three years.
“They are ripping us off as much [as] they can,” Simranjit Singh, a Human Resources and Business Management student in his last semester of the two-year graduate program at Algoma’s Brampton campus, told The Pointer. “I was expecting for [a] good academic future here, but eventually Canada failed me.”
Simranjit Singh is an Algoma University student enrolled at the Brampton campus and feels he was not given the quality of education he came to Canada for.
The unsustainable international student expansion at the Brampton campus, where space is leased, was achieved without “significant capital investments”, the Auditor General warned in 2022. According to the current campus map for Brampton on the university’s website, it has 16 classrooms for its nearly 5,400 students (Algoma’s director of strategic marketing and communications Erin Morrison told The Pointer there are 38; but it’s unclear why there is a discrepancy). There is no student housing, but Morrison said there are plans to build a 500-bed residence. Unlike the main campus in Sault Ste. Marie, which has two dorm buildings with subsidized housing and meal plans, a large library and a large, modern athletic and recreation facility, Brampton’s roughly 5,000 international students do not enjoy similar resources.
Meanwhile, thanks to those who have arrived from India, who make up approximately 92 percent of Algoma’s Brampton student body, the university’s financial fortunes have been completely turned around. According to its own annual financial disclosures, Algoma went from $5,806,372 in total cash assets in 2016 (when, according to the AG, the university was over-burdened by debt) to $227,985,000 in 2023, a 3,800 percent increase in seven years.
The main campus in Sault Ste. Marie had a little more than 1,800 full-time equivalent students in the 2021/22 academic year, according to the university, while its satellite campus in Timmins had a few dozen students. At the time, Brampton’s 1,313 students represented about 40 percent of Algoma’s total enrolment, a number that had doubled in less than three years. Now, just two years later, the campus has almost 70 percent of Algoma’s students, and the vast majority are here from India on a visa.
“Algoma has become economically dependent on international student tuition revenue from students from India”, the Auditor General red-flagged in the report, which focussed attention on the university’s questionable financial management.
According to the school’s website, it charges international students $10,000 per term for tuition, compared to Canadian and American students who pay $2,932. They all pay $495 per term in fees, but it’s unclear why those in Brampton are charged the same, despite having fewer student resources.
Before the recent explosion of international students, the numbers had already almost doubled from 2016/17 to 2020/21, when they made up 54 percent of Algoma’s student body, compared to 28 percent four years prior, when the university was facing financial challenges, according to the province’s Auditor General.
“It's a trap…and I got [stuck] in it,” Singh laments. Before he can follow through with his plans to return to India, he needs to pay back the loans he took out to study in Canada. He still wants to make something out of the financial investment he put into his education here. Many of the students from India are from the state of Punjab, and single out Brampton because of its large Punjabi-Canadian population. They are also lured at home by the huge immigration recruitment industry in the state.
The majority of enrolment growth in 2020/21 was at Algoma’s School of Business and Economics located at the Brampton campus.
(Hafsa Ahmed/The Pointer)
When Algoma began its aggressive strategy to earn massive revenues on the backs of international students (the current enrolment would equate to approximately $110,000,000 in annual tuition and fees, assuming two terms per year, from its Indian students in Brampton) it began working with third-party recruiters, a questionable practice that was flagged by the Auditor General who raised concerns about using a profit-driven motive to find revenue from abroad.
“Current compensation practices for international recruiting agents incentivize them to recruit more students, but not necessarily more qualified students,” the AG report pointed out. “Agents are compensated based on a percentage of the base tuition. The university also paid in-country recruiting services a fixed monthly fee plus expenses incurred. This compensation structure may incentivize recruiting agents to recruit a large number of students who may not ultimately become successful graduates because the students are meeting only minimum admission requirements”.
The report revealed Algoma’s “international undergraduate student graduation rate for 2022 was 55%”, and this does not account for those students who passed courses and ultimately finished their studies, but did not get grades that would allow them to compete for jobs in their field. The university, according to the AG (and unlike many other institutions) did not track the progress of international students after they left, with no data on employment or success finding work in their field.
Many of the students from India are from families that can barely afford to send children abroad, and often take on significant financial hardship hoping that a Canadian degree or diploma will lead to citizenship and, in some cases, the ability to bring other family members here, eventually.
Students at Algoma’s Brampton campus have said they are spending as much as $26,000 a year on tuition and fees alone. The average annual income of those in India who make enough money to pay tax (less than two percent of the population) is about $3,000 CDN.
Dozens of the university’s international students in Brampton have taken to the streets recently, to protest the lack of support and resources, specifically the lack of transparency around grades (simply wanting to know how they performed) and mass exam failures in particular courses, raising concerns highlighted by the AG that a profit-driven recruitment and admissions strategy which pushes “only minimum admission requirements” can lead to a mismatch between the expectations of some students, and their abilities. Algoma denied the students were graded unfairly and has offered some the opportunity to retake exams.
International students protested at Algoma’s downtown Brampton campus after unusually high numbers of failures in certain courses. The Pointer confirmed one student was given an “F”, but it appears he should have been given a passing grade of 71 based on his work.
(Hafsa Ahmed/The Pointer)
Algoma does its own transcript assessments, the AG report detailed, which are “based on grade-conversion charts developed in-house, as no provincial conversion standards have been established by the Ministry.” The AG reported the university “also does not require students to submit assessments from third-party foreign transcript evaluation services.”
Morrison wrote in an email response that, “Proof of English language proficiency is required for international students to attend Algoma University.” To establish the academic level of applicants she said the university accepts third-party assessments from a number of recognized national and international businesses such as the International Credential Assessment Service of Canada, which is a private company.
The Auditor General “found instances where an international student applicant was accepted to the university even though their transcript did not meet admission requirements.” Eight percent of its sample for Algoma found the university “granted admission to students who did not have the required prerequisites for their program of study.”
“The university admitted the students without the condition that they complete the required courses in their first year,” although the report notes Algoma remediated the situation “eventually by requiring the students to complete the required prerequisites in a subsequent year.” Morrison said Algoma’s senate “sets admissions standards for programs, including the minimum academic requirements for admission,” and stated there are “no exceptions to admission requirements.”
It is unclear how Algoma’s aggressive recruitment of Indian students will be impacted by new rules introduced Monday by the Liberal government to address the exploitation of international students.
Immigration and Citizenship Minister Marc Miller announced the federal government will be capping the number of student permit applications over two years, with 2024 anticipated to see 360,000 study permits approved, a 35 percent decrease from 2023 to address the “unsustainable” increase in international student enrolments, as his Ministry later described it to The Pointer.
“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,” the Ministry wrote in a press release Monday. “Rapid increases in the number of international students arriving in Canada also puts pressure on housing, health care and other services.”
A spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada told The Pointer in an email that under the new measures, provinces and territories will be in control of how permits are allocated in their jurisdiction, and said they “continue to be responsible for designating learning institutions for hosting international students.” IRCC, the spokesperson said, expects designated learning institutions, such as Algoma, to “only accept the number of students they can provide proper services for, including assistance in finding adequate housing.”
5,372 students currently attend Algoma’s Brampton campus, a 900 percent increase in just three years. No university-provided, on-campus housing was built in that time, despite the astronomical rise in admissions of international students, who pay more than three times what domestic students are charged.
(Hafsa Ahmed/The Pointer)
Ontario’s Ministry of Colleges and Universities responded to questions about the announcement and concerns about international students at Algoma’s Brampton campus. “While the Federal government is responsible for Canadian immigration policy and directives associated with international students’ study and work permits, all levels of government have a role to play in supporting the welcoming of international students, from their arrival in Ontario to creating conditions that make it easier for them to access postsecondary education. Ontario looks forward to meeting with Minister Miller to discuss issues facing international students.
“At this time, we are carefully reviewing the blue-ribbon panel's recommendations as we focus on creating a sustainable path forward now and for generations to come. Included in this review is how funding for colleges and universities will proceed in the 2024-25 school year, as well as creating ways to enhance supportive learning environments that prepare students for great careers. The government will continue to work with sector partners to identify ways to support and enhance international students’ learning experiences and labour market outcomes.”
The 2022 AG report showed that 65 percent of Algoma’s total revenue, from all three campuses, came from international students in 2021/22 (almost all of it from Brampton) and they provided 76 percent of the university’s tuition revenue in 2020/21. The number of international students has gone up almost ten times since then, but nothing appears to have been done to track student success after they leave, raising concerns about the “labour market” benefits the provincial ministry pointed to as a key goal.
Maclean’s magazine publishes a popular annual rating of Canadian universities. Its October 12, 2023 online edition featured a piece on its 2024 ranking of 20 primarily undergraduate schools in the country. Overall, Algoma came second last, in 19th; and 20th out of 20 in the following categories: money spent on library services; student services provided; and overall reputation according to a survey of professionals and those in a position to evaluate how well universities are meeting the needs of students. However, it was ranked number 1 in one category—the amount of money in its operating budget. No surprise, thanks to the hundreds of millions from Indian students.
So, with mounting concerns about the way universities and colleges are treating international students and a new set of restrictions from Ottawa, where does Algoma go from here?
“Algoma University is reinvesting in our students and in Brampton,” Morrison told The Pointer. “Since 2019-20 Algoma University has invested approximately $50 million in Brampton operations and infrastructure, and we have plans to continue to invest more than double that in the near future.” She highlighted plans for a 500-bed student dorm in the city and said ground will be broken soon.
Morrison said there are now “38 classrooms currently operational throughout our Brampton campus,” as well as “several additional classrooms (equivalent to about 100,000 square feet) being renovated now to include the same types of state-of-the-art technologies we offer in current classrooms.”
These improvements won’t benefit many of the international students who are struggling.
The Pointer spoke with eight who attend the Brampton campus. With just 16 classrooms for 5,372 students, according to Algoma’s website; or 38 according to Morrison, they described being switched to online classes, even though they had been led to believe courses would be taught in-person, and some said in-class courses often end up using virtual sessions, with changes made last minute, offering emails from the university viewed by The Pointer that show classes and courses seem to be routinely moved from in-person to virtual settings.
Brampton student Sujinder Singh provided two email correspondences he received from Algoma, which informed him that his in-person courses had “been cancelled” earlier this month and moved to online delivery.
“I personally say that I prefer offline classes in which we actually go to class and interact with [the] professor face to face,” says Sujinder Singh, who like his namesake also studies Human Resources and Business Management. He told The Pointer the campus in Brampton does not have the space to accommodate enough in-person classes that many want to attend, which results in students being placed in online classes, “even if we want offline classes.”
He was recently switched out of two in-person classes, into virtual courses instead, without any explanation.
When asked if Algoma has a policy about shifting courses that are advertised as in-person to online without giving students who already enrolled in them under in-person delivery an explanation for the change or allowing them to have a say, Morrison said she could not confirm what the practice is.
Singh said the online course system is a problem. “Sometimes we do not interact with professors…Most of the time, we do not know who is the professor.” He said they just upload video lectures and students must study off them for their exams and assignments.
In its January 2024 Board of Governors’ report, Algoma highlighted that it “proudly signed” the Brampton Charter, which as the university states in the report, “sets guiding principles for all of us who have obligations to international students, ensuring action and investments continue in order to provide a foundation for their wellbeing.”
Critics say signing symbolic agreements while the treatment of international students becomes a national concern, fails to explain ongoing practices.
“Institutions should not be recruiting students, international or domestic, if they cannot offer housing and other services necessary to providing a quality education,” David Robinson, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), told The Pointer in an email. “As the government of Ontario has cut public funding, many institutions have developed a dangerous dependency on international student revenues,” he wrote. “This exposes them [to] the vagaries of geopolitical developments that dramatically impact enrolment.”
“International students don’t deserve to be treated like ATMs,” Nigmendra Narain, President of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, told The Pointer. “Many underfunded universities have begun to rely heavily on international students as sources of revenue who pay exorbitant tuition fees that many use to make up the gap in funding from the government.”
Ontario Liberal leader Bonnie Crombie told The Pointer responsibility for the way universities such as Algoma treat international students lies with Premier Doug Ford and his PC government.
“Doug Ford and the Conservatives have deliberately underfunded post-secondary institutions, making them completely dependent on revenue from international students.” She said proper oversight of colleges and universities was removed. "Now, international students are being exploited.”
She said these moves will lead to the further privatization of post-secondary education and the proliferation of unregulated private career colleges.
A November 2023 report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives titled Back from the Brink: Restoring public funding to Ontario’s universities, highlights the province of Ontario’s cuts to funding through the years, stating that from 2018 to 2022, “university operating revenues from the provincial government and domestic student fees declined by about $3,200 (in 2020 dollars) per full-time student.” It reported that the “dramatic loss of provincial funding” has led to “significant consequences for all aspects of university life and operations…”.
The Immigration Ministry was asked how current visa students, under the new policy announced Monday, will be assessed for future study in the country. The Ministry spokesperson told The Pointer that current students would not be impacted by an added “requirement for certain study permit applicants to provide a provincial attestation letter with their application, effective immediately,” and that the government will “expect provinces to have a process in place by March 31, 2024,” noting that the requirement for a provincial attestation letter “applies only to certain study permit applications received after the Minister’s announcement.”
The federal government announced a two-year cap on international student permits and said it expects institutions such as Algoma to “only accept the number of students that they can reasonably support, including providing housing options for them.”
(Hafsa Ahmed/The Pointer)
The November 2023 Back from the Brink report highlights that as a result of the drawback in provincial investments, universities and colleges see international students as “exploitable ‘cash cows.’”
“In the 2022–2023 academic year, international undergraduate students paid an average $40,200 a year (in 2020 dollars) to study in Ontario, roughly 5.7 times as much as domestic students,” the report detailed. “In the 2021–22 school year, almost 19 per cent of all full-time students were international students; they were paying nearly half (48.4 [percent]) of all tuition fees in the province.”
The Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada spokesperson wrote that, “International students make immense contributions to campus life across Canada, and account for economic growth that supports thousands of jobs… We expect designated learning institutions to only accept the number of students that they can reasonably support, including providing housing options for them.” It is “clear that the number of students arriving in Canada has become unsustainable.”
“Domestic students and international students need to be housed,” MP Jenny Kwan, who is the federal NDP Critic for Housing and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, told The Pointer in an email. “Decades of disastrous Liberal and Conservative housing policy failures caused the housing crisis, not international students. Because of Liberal mismanagement, talented students who seek to build a better life may be punished by the new cap.”
She said post-secondary institutions “need adequate funding from the provinces.”
NDP MP Jenny Kwan, the federal party’s critic for housing and immigration, meeting with Punjabi international students from India in Brampton in June, 2023.
(Office of MP Jenny Kwan)
“In Doug Ford’s Ontario where funding is among the lowest anywhere in the country, it should come as no surprise that universities have been trying to court international students,” Kwan said, adding that the government must ensure international students “are not taken advantage of in Canada” and has to be “vigilant of the bad actors that are out there.”
Gurpreet Malhotra, Chief Executive Officer of Indus Community Services in Brampton, who has tirelessly advocated for the international students his agency has to help take care of every day, told The Pointer that “bad actors” in the post-secondary institution realm are “not only these diploma mills, private companies, and not only these uncomfortable partnerships between private career colleges and publicly-assisted ones, but even publicly-assisted institutions,” who he said prioritize profit over academic integrity.
Malhotra shared his support of the federal government’s announcement, saying newcomers are not to blame for the housing crisis, but that relieving some of the demand on the housing system is a step in the right direction.
“Not building more housing is problem A, inviting more people on a temporary basis and giving them no place to live is problem B,” he said. “It's not the fault of the immigrant that went through a very difficult process to immigrate to this country,” he added, highlighting that newcomers are trying to settle under existing policies that welcome them, at the same time that governments are not building enough housing. He also emphasized the problem of post-secondary institutions that bring droves of students to the country often without providing their own accommodations, with the provincial government failing to hold them accountable.
Malhotra said that when there is a pattern of drastic growth in enrolment of international students, it becomes clear that an institution is “exploiting foreign, international students for their own institutional or organizational gain.” In turn, he said educating these individuals “is not about, then, building the next generation of Canadians or improving the minds of young people and providing them with the tools to be a success in the future,” but that the system “has all been about organizational and personal gain as they seek their high salaries and their record surpluses on the backs of, in many cases, poor Indian farmers.” He said if “you invite a young person from another country…you need to be able to provide them with access to safe, proven, comfortable housing that’s affordable.”
Sudha Rani, a first year Human Resources and Business Management student at Algoma’s Brampton campus, spoke to The Pointer about what life as an international student in the city is like. She said finding work and accommodation is difficult. If you “don’t have networks, it will be so tough for you.”
Instead of finding employment in their field to gain critical experience, warehousing, restaurant or labour-intensive jobs are what international students end up doing. The high cost of living, she said, especially the price of groceries, is “too much.”
This is not lost on Asima Vezina, President and Vice-Chancellor of Algoma since 2017. Sources told The Pointer she is acutely aware of the situation in Brampton and the struggles of international students, even quietly spearheading a recent community fundraising initiative to raise money for food for the university’s students in the city.
She herself has refused to take a raise for at least six years, despite being one of the lowest paid university presidents in the province.
The Brampton Algoma University satellite campus is located in the city’s downtown where space in buildings is leased. There is no university-provided housing despite having more students than its main campus in Sault Ste. Marie, which offers residency including for international students.
(Hafsa Ahmed/The Pointer)
Shweta Aggarwal, a second year Human Resources and Business Management student spoke to The Pointer about the lack of food programs available at the Brampton campus. While she says Algoma does provide some resources to help students and believes the institution and its faculty are “good at communicating” and that her experience overall has been positive, she says there should be affordable, on-campus options for student meals.
“The food is not provided, somehow… Inside [some buildings] there is like a vending machine and it is right there but it is very expensive.” Students, she said, can bring their own food. “They have microwaves…just one or two microwaves. Other than that, nothing.”
Though she tries to find the positives, she says students at the campus expected a “better life here. Other than that, instructors are good, studies are good,” she said. “You have to lower your expectations and then you’re fine.”
Algoma launched a recent campaign to raise money to “fight student hunger,” with donations that will help expand its existing food pantry at the Sault Ste. Marie campus and create new food options at the Brampton campus. In its January 2024 Board of Governors’ report, Algoma said it announced plans to work with the students’ union to “establish a new food pantry in Brampton.”
Simranjit Singh said it is challenging to find housing with “tons of students” competing for limited availability (which often leads to exploitation by landlords). When he first arrived to study at the campus he stayed with his brother who was already living nearby, but eventually had to rent a room in Mississauga.
His educational experience has been chaotic.
He was in some in-person classes first semester, but after that online classes were often the only option. “We were fighting for offline subjects” and he tried to get into available in-person classes “multiple times” but the courses filled up in “seconds” because most students wanted to avoid the virtual options.
He says students from abroad should avoid his own experience at Algoma if they want a valuable education.
“I will advise that if the students are coming here to do [a] labour job, then it's okay… Don't expect a career growth. It's a trap. It's a very big trap. You will only understand when you come to this country…”. He said even though he chose to leave India, instructors there were “more hardworking” and gave more to students than what he has experienced at Algoma’s Brampton satellite campus, which hosts thousands more students than the main campus, without nearly as much space and resources.
In December the federal government announced it is doubling the cost-of-living requirement for foreign study permit applicants, from $10,000 to $20,635 in 2024. A prior decision allows international students who are already in Canada, or those who applied for a study permit as of December 7, to work off campus for more than the previous 20 hours per week limit until April 30 this year.
These measures and Monday’s announcement signal the federal government has finally woken up to the widespread struggles of international students, but Ontario will have to deal with its own bad actors.
“I think a blanket cap on the number of international student visas is a blunt way to deal with the problem, and the real focus should be on cracking down on the bad actors and unethical recruitment strategies,” Robinson told The Pointer. “CAUT had long been calling on the federal government and provinces to do something about the exploitation of international students.”
“Motivated by financial gain and actively encouraged by governments, institutions have been recruiting international students in mass numbers without ensuring they have access to housing and other services, or ensuring that the institution has the physical infrastructure and faculty numbers necessary for a quality education,” he said. “Some bad actors were exploiting the system and it was high time the government intervened.” He said a more targeted approach than a cap would be a better way to place checks and balances on specific institutions that egregiously exploit international students.
“Ultimately, we need to ensure that governments adequately fund post-secondary education.”
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