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.