Sun, November 26, 2006
A school or a scam? After paying $14,000 tuition to study in Canada, these foreign students believe they were duped
By BRODIE FENLON
She is a strong, fiercely intelligent 24-year-old university graduate from China.
But Yanping “Lily” Zhou’s face darkens and tears run down her cheeks when she speaks of her hard-working parents and the years it took them to save $14,000 so she could study in Canada.
They don’t know her tuition money, equivalent to four times a good annual Chinese salary, is gone. The cash is being held by a Toronto private college where Lily found she was the only student enrolled in a “post-graduate diploma” program in education administration.
She can’t bear to tell them the college she says the school’s agent promised — three campuses, more than 30 programs, several hundred courses — is really an eight-classroom school on the sixth floor of an office building at Dufferin St. and Finch Ave. W.
Lily quit the first week of classes, despite threats she’d be reported to Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), she said. The school has yet to refund the cash.
And all levels of government, from CIC to the province’s ministry of training, colleges and universities, to the consumer protection branch of Ontario’s government services ministry, have washed their hands of her plight and four others like her.
“Where is the money? Where are my studies?” she asked, her eyes full of tears. “Why is this kind of school allowed in Canada?”
Lily is one of five Chinese students who told the Sun they’ve been refused refunds after withdrawing from Toronto Polytechnic Institute (tpit.ca), a “not-for-profit” school offering English as a second language, undergraduate and postgraduate diplomas, and a “master degree qualifying diploma program.”
With eight classrooms, the same school also houses the Toronto International College and the Toronto Institute of Technology, all private schools owned by businessman Anchuan Jiang. The Sun has found two lawsuits by other students against TPI (see sidebar).
Reached in China where he’s on business, Jiang said the students are involved in a campaign to smear TPI’s reputation and to pressure the school into giving them a refund.
“We did not try in any way to mislead or misrepresent ourselves,” said Jiang. The students were made fully aware before registering that the school leased one floor of an office building and that it offered career training and degree preparation — not degrees, he said.
Jiang said the students refused to submit the proper documents for a refund, although he concedes the refund policy package they were asked to sign states that they are ineligible for any money back.
As he explained: “That’s our policy, but in practice, when we receive the students’ application, we look at the application with consideration to each person’s case.”
Until recently, the school’s website and brochures featured a mix of real classroom photos and stock photography of Ivy-League buildings, students and parks. Jiang said TPI never stated the buildings pictured were owned by his school.
Within hours of Jiang’s conversation with the Sun, the website was revamped and some stock photos removed. While the school advertises more than 30 career programs, TPI is only recruiting for four programs due to a lack of resources and enrolment, he said.
None of the five Chinese students who spoke to the Sun knew each other before they arrived in Canada, yet their stories are nearly identical: They claim they were misled by the school’s agents in China, paid tuition upfront, and arrived in Canada only to find the school lacked the programs and equipment they had signed up for.
Each believed the unusually prompt approval of their student visas by the Canadian consulate in Beijing was a tacit endorsement of TPI by Canadian officials.
When they quit the school, the students claim they were denied refunds and told they’d be reported to CIC.
Jiang dismisses the allegations outright. “If they claim that we misled them and they didn’t know anything about private career colleges, that’s not true,” he said, suggesting the students chose TPI as a last resort after being denied acceptance to publicly funded schools in Canada.
He said all five students lacked English proficiency and needed to upgrade their language skills before their programs began. Some were reported to CIC for attendance problems, he added.
Jiang insists TPI is a legitimate institution with an excellent teacher-student ratio. He said he employs 12 full-time faculty and as many as 15 part-time instructors.
“We deal with each student quite fairly. Also, we want our students to help us in our recruitment and marketing by word of mouth. We don’t want to hurt our reputation as a serious institution.”
Lily said she and her new friends were vulnerable targets. Isolated in a foreign country, with limited English skills and no family in Canada, they are forbidden from full-time employment by nature of their student visas.
For three months, they have been bounced from one government agency to the next, with no one taking responsibility or offering to help them. Among the official responses:
– CIC: A bureaucrat said in an e-mail that educational institutions fall under provincial jurisdiction. Schools are “not required to register with CIC and we do not have the resources to verify all the institutions to which students apply,” the e-mail notes.
– Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities: A bureaucrat said in an e-mail that TPI was not required to be registered under the previous Private Career Colleges Act. The new act will require it to register as of Sept. 18, 2007. “Unfortunately, your contract and subsequent fees were collected before the new Act covers the registration of not-for-profits, and the Ministry has no jurisdiction to assist you in obtaining your tuition refund.” The writer advised the students to file a complaint with the Ministry of Government Services and to hire a lawyer.
– Consumer Protection Branch of Government Services: In a face-to-face meeting, a bureaucrat told the students he’d investigate, but that the ministry doesn’t oversee such things as quality of education, Lily said.- – –
Jiang said he will personally review the students’ refund applications “very seriously” if they submit them. “If they want the issue resolved, they have to pursue the right way. This is not a way to have differences resolved,” he added.
Lily has applied to George Brown College for next year, but is struggling to make ends meet. Her parents remain in the dark about her plight. They are too old and she doesn’t want them to worry, she said.
She is angry, confused, and deeply disappointed with Canada, she added.
“Every government (agency) told us we’re sorry and we wish you good luck,” Lily said. “Why does the Canadian government and the law permit this type of school to cheat international students?”
JIA ‘JENNIFER’ LI, 23
Jia (Jennifer) Li, 23: Newly graduated with a degree in economics from a Chinese university, Jennifer said she was sold on TPI by an agent working out of Shanghai.
Within one day of expressing her interest in TPI, she claims she was offered a place in its “International Banking & Finance” diploma program. The school didn’t ask for her transcripts, which made her suspicious, she said. Full payment was demanded upfront.
A former boyfriend in Toronto visited the school in person and warned her against the school, she said.
Concerned, Jennifer applied and was accepted to University of Guelph. Immediately upon arriving in Canada, she demanded her money back from TPI, which has balked at her repeated requests.
Jennifer said Jiang’s wife, Cindy Qian, a school employee, told her: “If you don’t want to study at our school, you are illegal here and I will report you to CIC.”
School owner Anchuan Jiang said Jennifer used his school to get into Canada and she was fully aware of its facilities after her boyfriend’s visit.
HUA ‘VINCENT’ BAI, 23
Hua (Vincent) Bai, 23: A university graduate, Vincent enrolled in TPI’s business and marketing program and paid his $14,000 fee. His visa was approved in under a month. He said he was told by the school’s Beijing agent that he could study his Master’s degree at TPI, and was surprised to learn upon arrival in Toronto that it had no degree program and that he couldn’t begin his diploma until he had completed ESL training.
He took a month of ESL courses, and then quit. The school refused to refund his money. “I thought Canada was very good. When I got off the plane, I found I was wrong. The school changed my view of this country.”
School owner Anchuan Jiang said his agents told all students “very clearly” that TPI is a not-for-profit college offering only career training. Jiang said the students knew exactly what they had signed up for.
JIAN ‘HILDA’ XIONG HONG, 23
Jian Xiong Hong (Hilda), 23: With her new bachelor’s degree in economics from China and strong English language scores, Hilda enrolled in TPI’s International Logistics Management postgraduate diploma program after she says an agent “told me a good story” about the school. She said she didn’t know the school was private until arriving in Canada and was stunned to see her timetable for the first semester had no logistics courses. She quit after the first week of school and demanded a refund. The school replied with an e-mail obtained by the Sun that notes: “We advise you to start attending classes; otherwise our policy forces us to report you to the Immigration Office.” Another stated simply: “There is no reason for a refund.”
Said Hilda, “I can’t believe a school can be a registered business but not a registered school … The government doesn’t protect the rights of international students.”
Jiang denies Hilda’s claims. He said Hilda and the others were fully aware the school is private and that they needed to upgrade their English before they could begin their programs.
CHEN ‘FLINN’ FEI, 25
Chen (Flinn) Fei, 25: “You (the Sun) are the first Canadian to help us,” said Flinn, who graduated this year with an electrical engineering degree from Nanjing University, one of China’s top universities. He enrolled in TPI’s “electronic engineering technology postgraduate diploma program” and paid $14,000 for tuition up front — his parents’ life savings. Upon arrival in Canada in June, he was alarmed to find that he was the only student in his program and that the school had no labs, as he says he’d been promised by a TPI agent at home. He took two ESL courses over the summer at the school, withdrew at the end of August and demanded a refund. He claims that Jiang’s wife, Cindy Qian, threatened to have his study permit cancelled if he left the program. He has been accepted at George Brown College for September 2007, but is stuck for cash, as he can’t legally work under his visa.
School owner Anchuan Jiang claims Flinn’s attendance was “very poor” and that the student agreed he would not seek a refund. “He has changed his story,” Jiang said.