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Bill 7-Private Training Act: Good intentions, Bad Delivery, Missing Information

Over the last two days, we have been debating Bill 7, Private Training Act, in the legislature. This bill replaces the Private Career Training Institutions Act, dissolves the Private Career Training Institutions Agency (PCTIA), and transfers its authorities and functions to the Ministry of Advanced Education. Closing the agency and transferring its functions to the Ministry of Advanced Education will save about $1.5 million over three years and moves British Columbia in line with how other provinces handle private career institutions.

Last April, the BC government dissolved the PCTIA, the organization that regulated private career colleges. This decision came after complaints about administrative fairness and enforcement of educational standards. A month after this decision was made, BC’s Office of the Ombudsperson also announced it would be launching a probe into the Agency.

On March 9, the Office of the Ombudsperson issued a Media Advisory indicating that its In the Public Interest: Protecting Students through Effective Oversight of Private Career Training Institutions would be made public following it being tabled in the legislature on Wednesday, March 11, at approximately 2:30 p.m. Today, we received an additional Media Advisory indicating that the report would not be tabled today and its public release would be postponed until further notice.

As you might imagine, this puts opposition MLAs in a very frustrating position as we were again discussing Bill 7 today in the absence of critical information that would inform us in our deliberations. As you will see from the discussion below, yesterday I rose on a point of order (but was overruled) asking that further deliberations of Bill 7 at Committee stage be delayed until such time as the Ombudsperson’s report was tabled.

In principle, Bill 7 is well intentioned. Unfortunately, it is incomplete and I spoke to the bill extensively yesterday in an attempt to offer means and ways of improving it. As evident in the relevant transcript of the proceedings (which I reproduce below), in my view there is a significant problem with the way Bill 7 regulates private language education schools. This legislation does not regulate the entire private language education sector. It only regulates those who voluntarily agree to actually seek registration. Those who choose not to register are not regulated. Paradoxically, in an attempt to protect students, those schools that voluntarily register and in so doing choose to meet higher standards are penalized with additional costs and administration. Those schools that choose not to register are not regulated and there is no additional protection for students, which is what this bill was supposed to do.

During the committee stage I offered an amendment to exclude private language education institutions from Bill 7 with the understanding that they would be regulated through the introduction of a future bill. The amendment was defeated.


Hansard Transcript of Deliberations


A. Weaver: I, too, share the concerns of the previous member speaking to this with respect to private language education. In reading through the definitions, I have some trouble with the definitions of “career training institution” and “career training program.”

My question to the minister is: does the minister see career training to mean and include private international language education schools, which are not actually providing career training but, rather, language education for foreigners? I’ll follow up with a quick question after that.

Hon. A. Wilkinson: On reviewing those definitions of “career training institution” and “career training program,” those definitions are directed at the “program of instruction” definition above — “(a) enhancing the student’s employability in a career occupation, or (b) improving the student’s ability to carry out a career occupation.”

That is not specifically addressing the language skill issue, which is captured in section 5 of the act. It provides that “an institution that is not required to hold a certificate may apply in accordance with this Division for a registration certificate or” — what they seek for federal approval for student visas — “a designation certificate.” They cannot get the federal visa status without the designation certificate.

A. Weaver: To give a personal story that might help where I’m coming from with respect to my concern over what, I would argue, is the absence of reflection upon some of the value-added that private language schools are bringing to our province, is that one of my constituents is the owner of Stewart College here in Victoria. It’s a fully accredited — voluntarily so — private language school here that has 175 host families in the greater Victoria region.

The opportunities that this school brings for international students is profound. There are 175 host families, who generate income from the students staying with them. The tourism sector in Victoria benefits from these students coming to our region. These students spend money. A third of their money is on tuition; two-thirds of their money is on other things.

The international language education is more than just tuition, which is my concern with respect to this bill as we move forward with these definitions and how they play out for private language education. This school provides a substantial economic boost to the greater Victoria area, and it is but one. There are many, many other such schools in the province of British Columbia.

My concern is that while it’s laudable and I applaud the efforts to actually protect students from perhaps fly-by-night organizations, my real worry is that the baby is going to be thrown out with the bathwater in doing this.

So my question to the minister is this. Is it possible, in light of the fact that we’ll almost certainly be discussing this bill for the rest of the day and perhaps much of tomorrow, to reflect upon the definitions, to recognize that perhaps something specific should be added into the definitions to deal with private language schools or exempt private language schools from the present bill so that more time could be put in to reflect how these non-career-training institutions will be better regulated under legislation that actually reflects the value-added that they provide to our economy?

Hon. A. Wilkinson: The member, of course, alludes to this balance I referred to earlier between those that seek to improve their quality of profile, enhance their credibility, improve their marketability and appeal to the international student market and thereby be looking for a federal student visa designation, which requires them to be compliant with the act and to be designated institutions. That introduces a certain compliance obligation, which will be limited over time, for those who are compliant and have a good track record.

Of course, at the other end of the spectrum, we look to have a light regulatory and compliance burden placed on those small institutions that perhaps are doing some less sophisticated training in a smaller venue.

The organization that the member refers to, having 175 homestay families in British Columbia, one would suspect that they are in the former category of the high-quality institution with the big reputation and a history of performance. That, of course, applies not only to the training in language but also to the selection and management of those homestay relationships.

I think the overview is that the organization the member refers to has very little to be concerned about with this legislation, because if they are big enough to be designated now, they will carry on in a very similar fashion under the legislation as they did formerly.

A. Weaver: I’d like to build on an answer that the minister gave me with respect to my question regarding the definitions of “career training” and “career training program” and his referring of me to section 5, which we will discuss later, of course. The question I have is…. My understanding, first off, is that the British Columbia government has entered into and signed a memorandum of understanding with Citizenship and Immigration Canada with respect to visa requirements and tracking those who are given a visa to come to an eligible institution. First off, may I ask if that is a correct understanding?

Hon. A. Wilkinson: There is an agreement between the provinces writ large and Citizenship and Immigration Canada as to the standard that will be applied at the provincial level to those language schools that seek to have eligibility for student visas.

A. Weaver: Coming back to the point raised by the member for Burnaby–Deer Lake, visa requirements are different depending on which country you come from. You may come from Taiwan, for example, and not need a visa to go and study in a school. You may come from another country and require a visa. You may be on a visitor’s permit and, as such, be allowed to study up to six months.

Coming back to the reason why I’m seeking clarification with respect to the definition of “career training program,” these private language schools provide critical training — not so much career training but language training — for international students wanting to better their skills in English. The concern here is that, if as the minister pointed out, by not having a specific definition for “private language education” someone is directed to section 5….

It says an “institution that is not required to hold a certificate may apply in accordance with this Division for a registration certificate.” This is making the whole private language sector in some sense voluntary. Now, a student could get a visa to come and train at a voluntarily registered private language institute. They could be with that institute for, say, two weeks and then move to a non-registered private language school.

Now, the reality here is that this does nothing to protect the students from fly-by-night organizations. All it’s doing is protecting the students at entry point to a registered school, but they can immediately move to another school. I would argue that, in so doing, the MOU that the British Columbia government has signed — or has along with other provinces, signed with Citizen and Immigration Canada — cannot actually be enforced because the government will have no control as to where a student actually ends up having their private language education, because it’s only at the entry point that the visa requirement is there.

What this does, without specifically defining private language schools in the definitions and treating them separately, is it gives a loophole and actually penalizes those who actually want to voluntarily register, those who in doing so must then put aside moneys to protect students — which I agree with in general. It’s a good idea to protect students. But the students will come in….

Those institutions that have spent the money to register voluntarily, put money aside — as per this legislation — can be the entry point for a student, but they don’t have to be the final point for a student. They could be a transition point for a student. This is why it’s so critical, I would argue, to put in the definitions and treat separately private language schools — not through voluntary regulation under section 5.

My question, then, back to the minister again and another time is: is it possible for the minister to reconsider, over the course of the night, the potential for adding an exclusion or adding in a different definition for private language schools that does not treat them as a throwaway into section 5, along with schools like massage therapy and other things as well?

Hon. A. Wilkinson: To address the member’s concern, as I understand it, the federal student visas are school-specific. So if the student arrives at school X and decides after two weeks they would rather go skiing or perhaps go to a cheaper school or something of the sort, their visa becomes void. That is the mechanism by which this regime is managed in concert with the federal government.

A. Weaver: Will that remain the same if this bill were to pass or not? Is that something that’s occurring now or has been in the past. Will it continue to be so in the future?

Hon. A. Wilkinson: Well, working with the federal government, we anticipate continuity, but we cannot tell them what to do with their legislative regime or their visa regime. But the status quo is expected to continue into the future in terms of that federal-provincial agreement, because as I say, it’s not just with British Columbia.

If I can answer the quantitative question from the member for Burnaby–Deer Lake that she raised earlier, Mr. Chair, there are 124 language schools on the federal immigrant student program…. Sorry, there are 124 language schools on the provincial list that are eligible for federal student visas.

I’m being corrected repeatedly here, because the note is not very clear. There are 124 schools on the ISP list with the federal government giving them visa eligibility, and 59 of them are language schools.

A. Weaver: Coming back to my…. I know I’m belabouring this point, but as you can see from the numerous members here, there’s some profound concern about the application of this legislation to private language schools in particular, in light of the fact that they’re not mentioned specifically in the bill — in the definition in particular, what we’re discussing right now.

My understanding is that in fact Citizenship and Immigration Canada does not yet track students upon entry into Canada. They are planning to do so, my understanding is, this year. However, my understanding is that they will be relying on the designate school, upon receipt, to actually provide information to CIC with respect to the date of entry and date of leaving.

Now, my understanding there is that, again, there is nothing to stop a person coming to Canada to a designated school and two days later moving to another school. That person is lost in the system. That person can attend another school with a valid visa that could be shown. It seems to me that unless we treat all such private language schools as requiring registration, then they’ll be lost.

This actually might encourage those to actually come with a visa for an accredited registered language institution and then move to some quick, fly-by-night organization. They head back to their country after they get their training, but there’s no record of them.

This bill does not protect the student. It actually penalizes the private language institution that must put aside money, etc., and spend the cost of registering. But that fly-by-night organization, which is not required to register, is not really tracked, and hence, the student is not tracked in the system.

Back to the minister again. Will the minister consider protecting our vibrant, solid, well-established private language school industry in British Columbia, catering to a very large market in the Asia-Pacific, by ensuring that all private language schools are required to register, or failing that, putting in a specific definition here to exclude private language schools from this act until such time as consultation on that particular sector can occur in greater detail?

Hon. A. Wilkinson: There seem to be a number of issues there, which I’ll try to unravel. First of all, the majority if not all of these designated language schools that provide the eligibility for a student visa require payment in advance. So presumably, the student then arrives in Canada. They may not arrive directly in British Columbia. They may take a few weeks to get here. They then show up for their course, and they have paid in advance. They will then engage in their course.

If they decide to quit the course, that is a federal issue, that they have then violated the terms of their visa. We do not engage in immigration enforcement issues in this government. That is exclusively federal jurisdiction.

If that student, as the model suggests, were to quit the school that they had paid tuition to after a few days — which is hard to comprehend why they would do that — and go to another school, they would lose the tuition they had paid to school A, pay tuition again at school B and face deportation for violating the terms of their visa. That paradigm seems to be flawed.

I think the member’s question is more specifically directed at the definition section of the act. Our goal with this act is to capture those institutions that do lead to eligibility for federal student visas so that the federal regime will be invoked, and we will protect the reputation of our schools and our programs by not allowing them access to federal student visas unless they are designated and have met the designation criteria here in British Columbia.

A. Weaver: Not to be argumentative, but as I pointed out earlier, in fact, you don’t have to have a student visa from many countries to actually study in this country, Taiwan being an example. You can come here from Taiwan and study. You only need a student visa, in my understanding, in most cases if it’s for longer than six months.

This does not protect those institutions that have spent a lot of time building their credibility, their reputation, putting British Columbia on the map as a go-to place for private language instruction from the fly-by-night organizations that don’t have to register. Those accredited schools, those registered schools, have extra burden put on them, and those not-registered schools get to benefit from the reputation put on them.

Again, to the minister, will he consider putting in a definition to specifically define private language schools in British Columbia?

Hon. A. Wilkinson: We seem to be dealing with apples and oranges here, mixed metaphors. If a student comes from the European Union, anywhere in the European Union, to a language school in British Columbia, they don’t need a visa. They have a lengthy stay period. They can go skiing. They can pick apples in the Okanagan. They can go to language school for a while. They will pay their tuition to the language school up front.

It begs the question: why would they go to language school A, change their mind after three or four days, as the member suggests, go to language school B and pay twice for the same product when they can come and go from Canada as they please?

A. Weaver: In fact, I was pointing in this case…. The last question was with respect to people who didn’t need a visa. They could come from Taiwan, say, and go to school B that is nonregistered. They’re not protected. They don’t require a visa because they’re not here for an extended period of time. They can just enter the language school.

My question to the minister. Why would the minister not want to regulate all private language schools instead of only those certain components of them that voluntarily choose to register? This is not protecting students, international foreign language students, because students from some countries can come to B.C. and register into a language school without a visa. It can happen today.

Some of the schools that they’re going to are going to be protected. They’ll be protected because they’re registered. Others won’t be. Those that are not registered, by and large, probably don’t have the same reputation — not in its entirety — as those who have spent the time and money to build that reputation. They’re benefiting from the established reputation of our vibrant private language education sector in B.C.

My question to the minister. Why does the minister not want to protect all international students and only just those coming specifically on a student visa — as opposed to visitors, or from those countries that don’t require a student visa to actually attend private language schools here in British Columbia?

Hon. A. Wilkinson: The working premise here is finding the balance between a light regulatory burden on schools that do not require government intervention — the living-room classes in Spanish or in English, for that matter, that are conducted informally, that require no regulation that we’re aware of — and the other alternative on the other end of the spectrum: schools that seek the endorsement of the state, schools that seek to have on their website and in their materials the demonstration that they have met federal student visa qualifications and thereby, as a prerequisite, have met the standards to be designated provincially. Those are major selling points for any school.

In order to have those criteria applied to them and be eligible under those terms, the schools need to meet some regulatory standards because they’re asking for the endorsement of the state, both federal and provincial. That is what this regime does.

A. Weaver: I rise on a point of order.

In light of the issue that was brought to us momentarily ago by the member for Burnaby–Deer Lake, that the Ombudsperson’s report is being released tomorrow, it behooves this chamber and MLAs within to hear the results of this report — this report that’s been in the works for quite some time — prior to debating this bill.

We checked with the Clerk’s office earlier today to see whether or not such a point of order would be in order — to actually raise it. Obviously, I can’t determine what the result is. But we have not as a House, as a chamber, got the information before us that we as a chamber need in order to debate and discuss the merits of this bill further. That will be available to us in this chamber tomorrow, after the Ombudsperson’s report is released.

There is no reason for us to be debating this in committee today. The reason this is happening today, I don’t know. But we have several weeks to go in this sitting of the Legislature. We can debate this and examine this more closely in committee stage once we have the information provided to us by the Ombudsman’s report.

With that, I leave it to your fine judgment, hon. Chair.

The Chair: Member, the point of order is not acceptable. It doesn’t qualify under the usage of the standing orders.

A. Weaver: Coming back to the definition of “excluded institution.” This was canvassed very thoroughly by the member for Burnaby–Deer Lake. I do have an amendment I wish to add here, hon. Chair, in light of the fact that, as we’ve had a great amount of discussion concerning private language education institutions and the fact that both the organizations representing them, as well as the members on this side of the House, have grave concerns about this particular bill and its potential handling of these private language education institutions.

The amendment that I bring forward is under “excluded institution.”

[By adding the text shown as underlined:

Section 1 – Definitions

“excluded institution” means any of the following

(n) a private language education institution]

On the amendment.

The Chair: Proceed, Member. Do you have anything further?

Minister.

Hon. A. Wilkinson: We do not support this amendment. So perhaps there should be debate on the amendment. We’d be interested in hearing what the member opposite has to say, and I suppose it’ll proceed to a vote.

A. Weaver: It’s unusual not to debate a motion more thoroughly. I, of course, brought this amendment forward in light of the fact that there have been a number of questions with respect to private language education institutions not being listed in the definitions and so falling under section 5 of the act. Then the questions arose as to the fact that only some language education institutions would have to register. Others would not have to. The visa issue is complex, because some students require student visas and some don’t, depending how long you’re here, what country you’re from.

The fact here is that this legislation does not regulate the entire private language education sector. It only regulates those who voluntarily agree to actually seek registration. So it’s punitive, one might argue, to those who actually want to live by the so-called law of the land and meet higher standards — punitive in that it requires them to create funds through tuition funds, etc., to protect students. We’re all for protecting students, but others can get away with it.

I think that if we’re going to move forward, at a minimum, while there are other issues with the bill, we need to actually pull apart private language institutions from this bill and take more time to more thoughtfully come up with means and ways of providing legislation that actually will deal with the regulation of the private language sector.

The Chair: Seeing no further speakers, the question is the amendment proposed by the member for Oak Bay–Gordon Head.

Amendment negatived on division.

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