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Canada: College’s decision to revoke 500+ admissions offers puts spotlight on Ontario’s public-private partnerships

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • International enrolments in Ontario’s colleges are surging
  • One way some colleges have expanded international student capacity is through an arrangement called a Public College-Private Partnership (PCPP)
  • The Ontario government has placed new caps on international enrolments in PCPP programmes, effective September 2023
  • One PCPP programme in Ontario was so “oversubscribed” for 2023/24 that it revoked the letters of admission it had sent to 504 international students
  • A solution is being worked on, and most of the students will now transfer to another college, Centennial College

Over the past decade, international student enrolments in Canada have increased much more quickly than in any other major study abroad destination. Canada hosted 808,000 foreign students in 2022 – a 179% increase over 2013. By contrast, in that same time frame, the US’s international enrolment increased by 13% overall (to 1.08 million).

A notable proportion of Canada’s rapid international enrolment growth is happening in the province of Ontario, and even more specifically, in Ontario’s public colleges, where one-third of all students are international. Last year, 63% of approved study permits for programmes in Ontario were for college-bound students.

The chart below, based on Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) data on study permit approvals, provides a good indication of changes in international student demand for different study levels in Ontario over time.

Growth in IRCC study permit approvals at the college level is much higher than for other levels. Source: ApplyBoard/IRCC

Public College-Private Partnerships

For many Ontario colleges, stretching to accommodate more international students has been essential to operations. Those colleges have in part mitigated chronic public underfunding with international tuition revenues in order to help maintain programmes and services. Some colleges have also taken advantage of a provincially authorised business model called a Public College-Private Partnership (PCPP) to increase their capacity to accommodate growing numbers of international students.

Under the PCPP model, a public college can admit international students and then send those students to a private affiliated college where programmes are delivered by the private college’s own instructors. The private college pays a fee to the public college, and international students end up with a public college degree that allows them to apply for Canada’s very popular Post-Graduation Work Permit (PGWP) programme.

But the PCPP model has come under increasing scrutiny over the past couple of years – and especially this month, when 504 international students had their offers of admission from Northern College, a public institution based in Timmins, Ontario, withdrawn. The students had been slated to go to Pures College, Northern’s private affiliate located in a suburb of Toronto. They were told that their admission had been revoked because a greater-than-forecasted number of students who had received admission letters from Northern had ended up having their study permit applications approved.

A sample letter from Northern College revoking an offer of admission.

Understandably, the affected students were shocked and distressed by the news. Many had already received their study permits and were getting ready to pack for their stay in Canada. Many had taken out loans to fund their studies and were paying interest on them. Initially, upon hearing the news of their derailed plans, none received any confirmation that they would be helped to find a place in another college and programme linked to PGWP eligibility. They were left wondering what their options were, from refunds, deferrals, or transfers to another school.

Working towards a solution

When the news broke, Pures College issued a statement saying it was Northern, and not Pures, that had revoked the admission offers and that it was ready and willing to accept the affected international students. It said, "Our public college partner has decided to withdraw these admissions. Pures had scheduled all the fall semester students for study before the revocation was made by our partner."

However, it said, its hands were tied given that in a PCPP arrangement, it is the public institution that makes admission decisions and that as a private affiliate Pures was unable to change the decision. In an email response to ICEF Monitor, Pures said the college “is working hard behind the scenes to try and resolve the issue and find options for the students that are impacted … we will be waiting for our public college partner’s decisions on how to solve the admissions revocation issue.”

For its part, Ontario’s Ministry of Colleges and Universities added in a statement to ICEF Monitor that, “As an autonomous institution, Northern College has sole authority over the admissions process, and the responsibility for decisions made by their partners, including Pures College. The Ministry has engaged regularly with both Northern and Pures to communicate our expectation that they work together to find solutions that respect the best interests of students.”

More recently, Centennial College, a public college based in Toronto, has announced that it is ready to absorb many of the students who are no longer able to go to Pures, contingent upon the students meeting Centennial’s own admission requirements. Accepted students will begin their programmes as planned in September 2023. Centennial President and CEO Craig Stephenson told CBC News “that when Centennial learned about what was happening at Northern College and its affiliate school Pures College of Technology, Centennial ‘took action to see how we could help them support students who have made plans and sacrifices to attend college in Ontario.’”

The Toronto Star reports that Northern administration posted on social media to say it is “grateful” to Centennial for preparing to enrol the affected students and clarified that, “students who choose to participate will do so at no additional cost to them.”

Northern engaged the help of BorderPass, a Canadian technology company that assists international students in managing their immigration pathways, to make the challenge of switching from one college to the other less onerous for the affected students. So far, BorderPass says it has heard from “over 330 students wanting to proceed with their journey to study in Canada,” and is working closely with the colleges and government officials. Northern adds that “nearly all of the 330 students now have housing arranged in Canada.”

How did this happen?

The answer to this question is multifaceted and somewhat murky. Northern’s decision to revoke the admissions letters could be linked to a need to comply with a new government directive announced in March 2023 and set to take effect in September 2023.

In 2021, the Office of the Auditor General conducted a review of PCPPs that among other lines of inquiry, explored whether PCPPs are subject to enough oversight in terms of quality control, recruitment practices, and admissions practices. That review determined that:

  • Several Ontario colleges had exceeded the limits placed on their international enrolments by a Binding Policy Directive issued by the Ontario’s Ministry of Colleges in 2019;
  • The colleges were then not held to account by the Ministry for the infraction;
  • The Ministry was not providing enough oversight of PCPPs.

In the wake of that review, Ontario’s Ministry of Colleges updated its Binding Policy Directive for Public College-Private Partnerships in March 2023. Among other stipulations, the new policy directive compels colleges operating PCPP programmes to enrol no more than 7,500 students across all its campuses – public and private. If that cap is exceeded and the Ministry is not satisfied with a college’s explanation for being over the limit, the Ministry “must reduce the college’s operating grant by $5,295 per student enrolled in the college’s public college-private partnership(s) over the limit … annually until compliance is reached.”

The updated policy takes effect in September 2023, i.e., less than a month from the time of this writing. The policy’s drafting in March 2023 – if the policy was the reason Northern revoked the 504 students’ admission offers – would have given Northern little time to adjust its admissions pipeline to comply with the new enrolment cap.

Neither the Ontario government nor Northern College has confirmed whether admitting the students would have put Northern in breach of the updated Binding Policy Directive’s 7,500-international student cap, but what is clear is that:

  • Northern’s overall international enrolment has been growing exceptionally quickly. Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, analysed Government of Ontario open data and found that Northern College’s international enrolment increased by 602% between 2019/20 and 2020/21 “due to its new PPP arrangement with Pures College in Toronto which attracted over 4,000 students in 2020/21.”
  • Northern College was already known to have breached the previous Binding Policy Directive from Ontario’s Ministry of Colleges. It was named alongside a handful of other PCPP colleges in this regard in the 2021 Auditor General’s Report.

Challenges in enrolment management

What is also clear is that Northern was relying in part on IRCC study permit approval trends to gauge how many offers of admission it could send out – and Northern is not alone in this way. It is a common practice among post-secondary institutions, as is factoring in the reality that many students apply to several colleges and end up refusing at least one offer of admissions. Northern had sent out a certain volume of admissions offers for the 2023/24 academic year based on the expectation that a predicted number of study permits would be refused. But of course, this didn’t end up being the case, and as Northern College’s president, Audrey Penner, explained, Northern ended up “oversubscribed.”

However, experts told the Toronto Star that “it’s unusual that a school is so far off in its calculations, especially at such a late stage in the game, with these students just weeks away from starting school.” Glen Jones, the Ontario Research Chair in Post-secondary Education Policy and Measurement and a professor at the University of Toronto, said:

“The notion that a public college would somehow, in error, provide hundreds of additional students unexpectedly is really unusual. And then to move backwards and, essentially, rescind those admissions is a pretty unusual circumstance.”

Going forward

Including Northern College, 11 of 24 Ontario’s public colleges are partnered with for-profit private colleges in the Toronto area. The 2021 Auditor General’s Report found that not only Northern, but also Cambrian, Canadore, Lambton, and St. Lawrence colleges had exceeded the international enrolment limit set for PCPPs by Ontario’s Ministry of Colleges in 2019. At that time, the private affiliates of public colleges were not to “exceed twice the amount of international student enrolment at the public college’s home campus(es).”

Given the events of the summer, it seems likely that Ontario’s Ministry of Colleges will be far more active in enforcing the terms of its 2023 update to its Binding Policy Directive for Public College-Private Partnerships and that Ontario colleges operating PCPPs will be reviewing enrolment management processes more carefully to ensure they remain in compliance with the updated directive.

For additional background, please see:

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