Vocational programs: a fast track to immigration?
MARIAN SCOTT, MONTREAL GAZETTE
Published on: February 18, 2017 | Last Updated: February 18, 2017 8:05 AM EST
When international students started flocking into the English Montreal School Board’s vocational programs in recent years, teachers initially welcomed the influx.
“We said, ‘Oh, OK, that’s nice,’ ” said Stacey, a vocational teacher at the EMSB who, like others interviewed by the Gazette, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of professional reprisals.
But the teachers’ attitude soured when they noticed many of the new students did not speak English or French, showed up late, skipped classes and spent class time shopping or playing games on their cellphones.
Cheating on exams increased, and with desks spaced close together in packed-to-capacity classrooms, and students using translation apps to understand questions, teachers were unable to control it.
High school vocational programs have long been a stepping-stone to a rewarding career for adults eager to learn a trade.
But in the last few years, they have also become a fast track to immigration for international students who enrol in courses at Quebec’s English school boards.
At the EMSB, foreign students pay an average $24,000 for courses lasting one to 1½ years. China is the top country of origin, but the board also hosts students from countries like Korea, India, Mexico and Brazil.
The Quebec Experience Program (QEP), launched by the government in 2009, allows foreign students who graduate from qualified programs at universities, colleges or vocational high schools to become permanent residents, even without Canadian work experience. They also must pass intermediate-level spoken French.
Secondary-level vocational programs are an increasingly popular choice with foreign students seeking a path to citizenship because of the lack of academic prerequisites and the fact they can earn a diploma in as little as a year vs. three or four years for a CEGEP or university program.
But the programs have come under scrutiny in recent months. On Nov. 30, the Education Department revealed it has ordered an audit and called in the anti-corruption squad to investigate allegations of irregularities at the English Montreal and Lester B. Pearson School Boards.
Teachers who spoke to the Gazette said they welcome the probe and hope it will lead to change.
“All we can hope is when this all comes out in the wash … there will be some repercussions, some irregularities exposed, so they will maybe clean up their act in terms of being not so overly eager to push the students through, but to show a little more respect for the rules and regulations,” Stacey said.
For a board that is losing enrolment, it is really beneficial.Mike Cohen, EMSB spokesperson
International enrolment has been a windfall for Quebec’s struggling English school boards, whose numbers have declined for decades under Bill 101, which restricts access to English school.
Foreign students contributed $10.3 million to the EMSB’s gross revenues last year, the board said, of which nine-tenths was for adult vocational programs.
In December, the Gazette reported that the EMSB has paid $5.66 million since 2010-11 to Can-Share Connections Inc., a company owned by Cui Wen (Cindy) Yao, to recruit students in China for its vocational programs. It has also paid Can-Share another $281,539 since 2014 for recruiting support from community groups for the EMSB’s vocational programs.
The EMSB offers programs in everything from automobile mechanics to welding, but not all qualify for the QEP, which requires 1,800 hours of study.
EMSB spokesperson Mike Cohen said the boom in international enrolment has injected much-needed revenue into the school system.
“For a board that is losing enrolment, it is really beneficial,” he said.
Total enrolment at the EMSB (including elementary, high school and vocational students) dropped from 27,000 in 2001 to about 19,000 this year. The decline has been partly offset by the boom in vocational education, where enrolment has nearly doubled since 2010-11, with 4,601 students currently enrolled, of whom 1,342 are foreign students.
In August, board chairperson Angela Mancini noted the EMSB was one of the few school boards in Quebec that began the current school year with a surplus, with operating revenues exceeding expenditures by $7.3 million.
The EMSB said it transfers 90 per cent of revenues from international fees to the Education Department, which then subsidizes vocational education on a per-student basis.
John Winrow, an executive assistant at the Montreal Teachers Association, the union representing EMSB teachers, accused the board of lacking transparency on its goals for international enrolment.
“I think there’s a huge ethical question. This is a school board in the public sector,” said Winrow, who questioned whether it’s right for a board to be courting fee-paying foreign students to fulfill its core mission of public education.
“It’s arguable that maybe that’s an appropriate use but I think it needs to be out in the open, transparent and debated properly. Because right now I think we’re masking things by using vocational education services to finance services for which that particular revenue was not intended,” Winrow said.
It took us by surprise to realize that we had students who did not have any intention of working in this field. They were just there to get their diploma for their immigration.Stacey
Teachers who spoke to the Gazette said the EMSB’s eagerness to attract international students, and its readiness to tweak schedules and relax norms to accommodate them, are a betrayal of the educational values they hold dear.
“They just want to take their money and shuffle them through the system as quickly and easily as possible,” Stacey said.
Many of the international students don’t seem interested in learning a trade, but view the vocational programs as a shortcut to citizenship, teachers say.
“It took us by surprise to realize that we had students who did not have any intention of working in this field. They were just there to get their diploma for their immigration,” Stacey said.
“This has been a bit demoralizing and disheartening for the teachers, because they’re trying to promote good habits and send people on a career in this field, and they’re trying to teach a class full of students who have no intention of working in it.”
Lee, another teacher, said some of the newcomers are conscientious students, but others have poor motivation and spend class time shopping for condos on their cellphones.
“They’re not really doing the work. You can tell when there’s no effort made and no care taken,” Lee said. “They just want to be here the minimum to pass the exam.”
Pat, another teacher, said some students have questioned why they got poor marks, noting it makes no difference whether they master the skills.
“(They say:) ‘Why do you fail us? We’re not going to be working in this field,’ ” Pat said.
“Some of them do say it directly. It’s not the majority. Most of them will not say it but some of them do.”
Hardest of all, according to the teachers, is the lack of language skills. They say students are required to speak Grade 10-level English to be accepted into the program, but many do not.
“It gets very frustrating for teachers when there are three, four or five students in a class who really don’t speak the language,” Lee said.
Asked about the issues raised by teachers, the EMSB’s Cohen provided a series of written answers.
“Although English is not the first language of these students, the majority have a very good working knowledge of English,” the statement said.
It also defended the international students’ academic performance.
“The majority of our international students are motivated to learn and are successful in their studies. But like any other educational institution — including CEGEPs and universities — there are sometimes students who are less serious. They are often, therefore, not successful,” the statement said.
Winrow also said the board appears to be skimping on costs in the vocational sector by increasing the size of classes, paying new teachers by the hour instead of putting them on staff, and forcing them to teach longer hours. The union has filed several grievances on those issues, he said.
“There needs to be an analysis and debate about what’s going on. And it has to start, I think, with a recognition that the school board is not spending the amount of money that it gets in revenue from vocational education that it should to deliver a proper vocational education program,” he said.
“We’re supposed to be delivering the ministry’s programs, and if in fact they’re not doing that properly I think that needs to be explained. And my position is we are not doing that properly,” Winrow said.
Vocational teachers hired to instruct international students are being paid less than full-time teachers, he said.
“They’re paying a teacher to teach a class of 22 students less than $40,000,” he said.
Winrow charged the EMSB has turned a deaf ear to vocational teachers’ complaints.
“We’ve had zero success. Zero,” Winrow said.
In the statement, the EMSB said grievances filed by the union “are not specifically related to international students.”
“The union and the school board are undergoing mediation talks to bridge the gap between their respective interpretations of some clauses in the Collective Agreement. This mediation process is governed by a strict signed confidentiality clause that both parties agreed to. Therefore, neither party is at liberty to discuss the details at this time,” the board said.
Winrow said teachers are under pressure to pass international students; in fact, “I’ve never heard of a student actually being failed in this program.”
“There are subtle and not-so-subtle pressures to pass them,” Lee said. “Teachers who don’t want to pass a student, they’ll give it to another teacher.
“Teachers have been told they have to keep them happy. They’re our bread and butter.”
Students who fail are allowed to rewrite the exam until they pass, Pat said. “Nobody ever told me, ‘You have to pass them,’ but when they keep giving them more rewrites, we get fed up.”
It’s in a view to getting them in and out as quickly as possible because there’s a huge revenue stream there.John Winrow, Montreal Teachers Association
Even when students are caught cheating, teachers say, the only consequence is they have to rewrite the exam.
In the past, they say, if a student didn’t seem cut out for a particular trade, the teacher would encourage him or her to switch to another program, but now, lack of aptitude is no longer considered a problem.
“Back in the old days, if a student failed one or two rewrites, the teacher could say they really have to repeat the module — and they did,” Stacey said. “Now they don’t want to do that; they just want to pass whoever they can pass and let them move on.”
Most international students are much more stressed about passing the government’s French test than succeeding in their vocational programs, the teachers say.
But the EMSB denied pressuring teachers to pass international students.
“Teachers are not under any pressure to pass students. Our success rate shows that there are indeed students who do not pass,” reads the statement to the Gazette.
“If a student fails a module, s/he may re-write after additional learning and study. One re-write is permitted automatically. But if a teacher asks the administration, in exceptional circumstances, to allow a student to re-write a second time, s/he may agree. Otherwise, the administration expects that the student will re-do that module.”
The union also criticized accelerated schedules that have international students spending up to nine hours a day in class.
“It’s in a view to getting them in and out as quickly as possible because there’s a huge revenue stream there,” Winrow said.
One cohort even attended classes from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., five days a week, two years ago, after international students in accounting learned that program was not eligible for the QEP.
To accommodate them, the EMSB allowed the students to transfer into other programs that were eligible for the QEP. To make up for lost time, it scheduled classes 12 hours a day, plus two hours of breaks.
The result was that students arrived late, left early and were falling asleep in class, teachers said.
But the EMSB said the 12-hour schedule was a one-time deal, “scheduled at the request of the students enrolled. It never happened again.”
The board denied that some accelerated programs have students spending too many hours in class and said most students “attend classes on time and regularly.”
Bryan St-Louis, a spokesperson for the Education Department, declined to comment other than to say that Michelle Lapointe, the auditor appointed by the ministry to investigate alleged irregularities at the two boards, “has the responsibility to take the measures she judges appropriate at the time she judges appropriate.”
But teachers said the board’s willingness to relax its standards for international students has bred cynicism toward the administration.
“There’s a feeling of impunity — if we don’t like a rule, let’s not apply it,” Pat said. “Most of the teachers are fed up. We do feel like we’re wasting our time.”
By the numbers: International enrolment at the EMSB
The EMSB currently has 1,342 international vocational students, representing 29 per cent of all vocational students.
Enrolment in vocational programs — which currently totals 4,601 students — has doubled in five years.
International students pay the EMSB an average of $24,000 for an 1,800-hour vocational program.
The EMSB transfers 90 per cent of tuition fees paid by international vocational students to the Education ministry. The ministry then funds vocational programs on a per-student basis
International vocational students contributed $9 million in gross revenue to the EMSB’s coffers in 2015-16, while international students in elementary and high schools contributed $1.3 million.
Revenue from international students accounted for about 15 per cent of gross revenue in the EMSB’s vocational sector in 2015-16.
International vocational students enrolled in the EMSB’s French courses for newcomers pay an additional $1,600 per semester (about $12 per hour).
Source: English Montreal School Board