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University staff face new restrictions on how they advise foreign students

Educational institutions try to find ways to comply with federal government regulations that allow only “authorized representatives” to offer immigration advice.

BY ROSANNA TAMBURRI | AUG 07 2013

Universities and other educational institutions are scrambling to find ways to comply with a recent clarification by Citizenship and Immigration Canada prohibiting their international student advisers from continuing to provide immigration advice to foreign students.

The decision was prompted by section 91 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, which came into force on June 30, 2011. The regulations (originally known as the Cracking Down on Crooked Consultants Act) make it an offence for anyone other than an “authorized representative” to provide immigration advice for a fee. Authorized representatives include lawyers, paralegals and immigration consultants who are certified members of the Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council (ICCRC), a regulatory body created by the Canadian government. Those who contravene the law could face fines of up to $100,000 and jail time of up to two years.

Although the law has been in place for two years, it wasn’t clear until recently that it applied to universities, colleges, high schools and other educational institutions. These institutions have routinely provided immigration counselling to foreign students in the past. The federal immigration department sought an internal legal opinion to resolve the matter, and the opinion concluded that the regulations do apply to universities and other educational institutions. CIC advised universities and colleges of its decision in May.

As a result, international student advisers employed by universities who aren’t “authorized representatives” are no longer allowed to advise students on immigration options, help them complete or submit immigration forms, or communicate with CIC on their behalf. All they may do is provide academic advice and translation services. On immigration matters, international student advisers are only permitted to refer students to the CIC website.

Philip Shea, assistant registrar, international, at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, said the ruling could hurt the high standards universities have set for providing international student services. He noted that the original intent of the bill was to protect foreign students from the fraudulent practices of some immigration consultants who charge fees for their services. But universities’ foreign student advisers don’t personally receive fees for assisting international students, he said, and they are generally well trained and knowledgeable about immigration issues affecting students.

“The concern we have is that educational institutions have been caught up in this and haven’t necessarily been violating the appropriate norms and systems or giving inappropriate services or advice,” said Jennifer Humphries, vice-president of membership, public policy and communications at the Canadian Bureau for International Education. Foreign students with complex immigration questions will now have to consult a certified immigration consultant or lawyer, incurring additional costs, she noted. Also, since consultants and lawyers typically deal with questions concerning permanent residency status, they may not be as well versed in the study-permit and work-permit rules that apply to foreign students, she added.

Nor are immigration consultants equally available across Canada, said Sonja Knutson, acting director of Memorial University’s International Centre and manager of its international student advising office. She noted that only two ICCRC-certified consultants are located in St. John’s and none in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, site of Memorial’s Grenfell campus. “I think that rural Canada can be affected by this decision,” she said.

After receiving the CIC notice, Memorial wrote a letter to its international students, informing them that it would stop providing all types of immigration advice for the time being. It also sought legal advice on how to handle the many questions it receives from international students that aren’t covered by the list of do’s and don’ts on the CIC website. That legal opinion is expected later this summer.

Ms. Humphries of CBIE said a few larger institutions have started the process of having some of their foreign student officers complete the necessary training to qualify for ICCRC certification. Others are looking to hire or contract out services to a certified immigration consultant or lawyer.

“None of the solutions are really ideal,” Ms. Humphries said, and all will take time to implement. But institutions want to comply with the law while also continuing to provide good quality services, she said.

It isn’t yet known what impact the changes will have on Canada’s long-term ability to recruit and retain international students, a key priority for the federal government. But institutions have concerns “around whether Canadian education will continue to have the reputation that it has for providing both a high-quality academic offering and a high-quality service offering,” Ms. Humphries acknowledged.

The changes may also affect staffing decisions at universities, especially those with advisers who used to offer full-time immigration support. Training someone for certification costs about $5,000 and takes four to 10 months; to maintain their certification costs more than $2,000 a year. Another barrier for universities in having their advisers certified is the content of the ICCRC-approved training programs: they cover a gamut of immigration issues, many of which aren’t relevant to universities and their students. Various associations are talking with the immigration department to see whether an abridged program might be introduced, specifically to meet the needs of foreign student advisers.

In a completely separate development, labour unrest involving Canadian overseas foreign-service officers, including those who issue student visas, is also threatening to interfere with the flow of incoming foreign students. The Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers initiated job action this spring at many Canadian embassies and consulates abroad. Ms. Humphries noted that many students from abroad arrive in Canada in the summer months and that if the labour dispute isn’t resolved soon, schools may have to consider deferring the start date for some foreign students to January from September.

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  1. Rebecca / August 7, 2013 at 12:15

    While the impact to the students is huge – don’t forget the other side. The impact of this legislation is also an issue for foreign faculty.

    Universities are facing increased scrutiny when applying for LMOs to hire non-Canadian faculty and then, should the LMO be approved, university staff are unable to assist the incoming faculty member with the majority of their immigration questions. For existing faculty on work permits, staff can no longer provide advice regarding permanent residency options. This combined with the current work stoppage is a major issue for Universities attempting to recruit and maintain their international faculty members.

  2. Dave / August 9, 2013 at 12:58

    I think this article overstates the abilities of university advisers.

    I categorically disagree that admissions officers and counselors are “generally well trained and knowledgeable” about immigration issues affecting students. Rather, they have a lot of practice doing student permit renewals, changes of status, and speaking on off-campus work permits and post-graduation options. This is a huge value add for sure.

    However, the notion that they have not been officially trained in the law means that they can unwittingly create errors and omissions, and these can cause huge problems for the students, their family members, and the reputation of the schools down the road. This liability can be ameliorated by directing a student to the CIC website or an immigration consultant. To speak about post-graduate options or the like, they can hire a speaker to come in twice a semester for a lecture and do a demo. This solves most problems.

    The fact that university advisers no longer have to freestyle answers to hundreds of complex immigration questions or fill out another stack of boring forms for students who are actually capable of doing it themselves already has been punctuated with a collective sigh of relief within the industry. This is not the issue and these articles keep overstating this. If it was an issue, they’d cough up the $ and have someone trained. But what they are not telling you, is then THEY WOULD HAVE TO OPEN THEIR BOOKS TO ICCRC.

    The larger issue FOR CANADA is that advisers who travel overseas or do marketing to attract international students can no longer use Canada’s immigration options as selling propositions and properly talk about what the students are legally entitled to. This makes it very difficult to compare Canada –which still has great immigration options for its foreign students– with the UK, Australia, and others, who are competing with us tooth and nail and getting a better return on their efforts.

    By the way the universities can say that they did not think this would apply to them. The bulletins put out by Mr. Kenney a couple years ago indicated it and most had already been advised this way by a lawyer.

  3. SC / August 11, 2013 at 10:30

    Not sure why it would be a problem- international centre advisers typically do not charge a fee for giving immigration advice. If universities are really concerned, they could offer ‘after hours’ immigration discussion forums where international centre employees could ‘volunteer’.