Study permit fraud presents serious integrity challenges


Authored by Sergio R. Karas, principal of Karas Immigration Law Professional Corporation.

In light of March being IRCC’s Fraud Prevention Month, I wish to stress the imperative to put a halt to study permit fraud.

Despite new measures announced by the Minister of Immigration on January 22nd, 2024, the structural problems with the Study Permit system will persist. A Canadian Study Permit is often seen as a gateway to permanent residency, and it continues to attract foreign students with promises of enhanced social status, increased earning potential, and opportunities for family members to enter Canada. Despite recent government initiatives, such as the introduction of a two-year cap and changes to the application process, fraud remains a significant concern.

The surge in Study Permit applications, driven by governmental policies and educational institution pressures, has created an environment ripe for unscrupulous individuals and agents to exploit and deceive students. This has far-reaching consequences, impacting Canada’s housing, cost of living, and the integrity of its education system.

According to a Globe and Mail report on February 2, 2024, the number of international students in Canada exceeded one million in 2023 – a staggering increase which represents a quadrupling of study permit holders compared with 2011. This exponential growth, encompassing 2.5% of Canada’s population, is overwhelming for the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) to appropriately vet.

These high instances of fraud often stem from cultural factors, such as transactional marriages in many immigrant communities. In these cases, families finance migration expenses for individuals passing an English exam, expecting them to marry a sponsoring family member for a Canadian work permit and eventual residency.

The increase in the number of international students is also linked to a decrease in provincial funding for colleges and universities, which has forced educational institutions to rely heavily on foreign student tuition. This has led to the emergence of dubious for-profit “diploma mills,” which lure students with promises of affordable tuition, easy admission, and the prospect of obtaining work permits or permanent residency. These colleges employ various tactics, ranging from offering programs without accreditation to providing misleading documentation, such as transcripts and diplomas, which can be used to misrepresent qualifications to potential employers or immigration officials. Upon reaching Canada, the students are sometimes informed that the intended college for their studies is no longer available, prompting their redirection to other smaller colleges. Unfortunately, the students often fail to report this change of educational institutions to IRCC.

In 2022, three colleges in Montreal closed due to financial irregularities, leaving 2,000 Indian students without an educational institution. In addition, a November 2023 study by Statistics Canada reported that around 19% of study permit holders may not be attending the institutions indicated on their permits. In early 2023, further reports brought attention to a situation involving 700 foreign students from India who were potentially facing deportation due to suspected fraudulent study permits. These students may have submitted counterfeit letters of acceptance from Canadian colleges to obtain their study permits, with the aid of immigration consultants who earn substantial commissions for recruiting students. The students, asserting their innocence, claimed they were misled by these immigration agents.

The heavy reliance of educational institutions on the substantial fees paid by foreign students has resulted in a decrease in domestic enrollment and a noticeable surge in registrations from international students. Numerous colleges readily admit underperforming foreign students, often operating through online platforms or small offices. They employ deceptive advertising and falsely claim affiliations with reputable universities or offers of degrees in high-demand fields to seem more attractive. According to a CBC report, international students, on average, pay $14,306 for one academic year, while domestic students pay $3,000. This significant disparity has severe consequences for foreign students, leading to the acquisition of degrees with limited value, reduced job prospects, and substantial debt.

The government has already taken several steps in recent years to bolster regulations, implement stricter penalties, and establish a public database of accredited colleges and universities. Canadian authorities launched the “Letter of Acceptance Verification Project” in 2018 to validate acceptance letters from educational institutions. Within this initiative, 3,000 cases out of 24,000 were flagged by the Canada Border Services Agency for submitting false admission letters. Despite these previous measures, the number of fraudulent study permit holders has significantly increased. It has become evident that more decisive actions are necessary.

IRCC announced changes on January 22, 2024, to restore the “integrity” of the International Student Program. As of January 31, 2024, IRCC has introduced substantial changes to the Post-Graduation Work Permit Program, effective from September 1, 2024. These changes include a two-year cap on study permits, limiting approvals to 360,000 for 2024, reflecting a 35% reduction from the previous year.

Nevertheless, concerns persist, as the new cap only applies to new applications. This has left existing permit holders unaffected, given that Study Permits are typically granted for a duration of three years. The recent temporary restrictions on international students will impact new applications, bringing into question their efficacy in addressing the large-scale number of already existing Study Permit holders. The decision to still approve 364,000 undergraduate Study Permits for 2024 also indicates that the caps are likely to fall short in addressing housing and cost-of-living issues in major Canadian cities.

International students enrolled in colleges with curriculum licensing arrangements are ineligible for post-graduate work permits. Conversely, master’s degree graduates now qualify for a three-year work permit. Furthermore, starting September 1, 2024, only spouses of master’s and doctoral students are eligible for open work permits. These measures are envisioned by the government to tackle the cultural phenomenon of transactional marriages.

Additionally, the cost-of-living requirement for study permit applicants was updated on January 1, 2024, and additional measures including requiring designated learning institutions (DLIs) to directly verify applicants’ letters of acceptance with the IRCC to prevent fraud have been imposed. The study permit application process now requires an attestation letter from a province or territory, with streamlined processes mandated by March 31, 2024. Plans involve implementing a “recognized institution” framework for the fall 2024 semester, prioritizing the processing of Study Permits for post-secondary DLIs with elevated standards. Also, a task force was established to collaborate with the Canada Border Services Agency in identifying fraud victims among international students. To protect genuine students from deportation due to fraudulent documentation, the Minister assured that Temporary Resident Permits would be issued, to avoid the 5-year ban on re-entry for misrepresented cases.

While numerous cases involve individuals being misled by unscrupulous agents, foreign students are not exempt from responsibility. They may either provide or be cognizant of the fraudulent documents utilized in their applications. Even if students are being manipulated by dishonest agents, they may still be held accountable for the contents of their applications. In a recent case, Kaur v. Canada (Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness), 2023 F.C.J. No. 67, the Federal Court ruled that the student was responsible for verifying the truthfulness of their submission. Regrettably, in most cases, students neglect precautionary measures, such as verifying the credentials of the consultants and agents they engage, or actively participating in the application process.

In navigating the application process, students should refrain from relying on their representatives. One investigation revealed a concentration of applications tied to one immigration consultant in India, who, after being reported missing for a period, faced charges from the Canadian Border Services Agency. Unfortunately, many students are advised to resort to misrepresentations to secure a study permit. Sadly, many students see no downside to this reprehensible conduct, as there are few or no consequences for them, and they are single-mindedly focused on their quest for permanent residency. The alleged fraud in these instances only came to light when affected students applied for post-graduate work permits or permanent residency, leading Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada to uncover the deception. Consequently, it appears that recent governmental policies, such as the student caps, may not effectively capture those who are already in the country under fraudulent study permits.

The rise in Study Permit applications, fuelled by government policies and institutional pressures, has become a breeding ground for fraud. Opportunistic individuals and unregistered agents, motivated by recruitment commissions, exploit loopholes to deceive students. To protect themselves, students should thoroughly verify the credentials of overseas agents and approach promises of quick acceptance and low tuition from obscure colleges with caution. Ignoring or participating in fraudulent applications can have serious consequences. As Canada faces increasing levels of fraud, collaborative efforts, stricter measures, and a comprehensive approach are essential to preserve the integrity of its education system and uphold its reputation as a genuine destination for international students.

Sergio R. Karas, principal of Karas Immigration Law Professional Corporation, is a Certified Specialist in Canadian Citizenship and Immigration Law by the Law Society of Ontario. He is co-Chair of the ABA International Law Section Immigration and Naturalization Committee, Past Chair of the Ontario Bar Association Citizenship and Immigration Section, Past Chair of the International Bar Association Immigration and Nationality Committee, and a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation. He can be reached at

The author is grateful for the contribution to this article by Hannah Cho, Student-at-Law.

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