For years, cash-strapped Quebec school boards have approached international student enrolment as a promising revenue stream.
But it has also been lucrative for one Montrealer who has been paid millions of dollars to recruit students in China for six of the province’s nine public English-language school boards at the same time as they all compete for a piece of the international student jackpot.
International enrolment in Quebec school board vocational programs has surged since the province launched an accelerated immigration program for international students and specialized foreign workers in 2009. The program allows foreign students who complete a vocational, CEGEP or university course in Quebec to qualify for permanent residency without work experience.
Cui Wen (Cindy) Yao has been paid nearly $6.5 million since 2013 by two of the anglophone boards alone — the English Montreal School Board and the New Frontiers School Board, south of Montreal — to recruit in China for their vocational education programs in Quebec. The boards’ payments are going to Yao’s company, Can-Share Connection Inc., which has a contract with the EMSB and a fee-for-service “arrangement” with New Frontiers.
New Frontiers School Board has disbursed $1.84 million to Can-Share Connection in the past three school years under their arrangement, said Robert Buttars, the board’s director general. The board, which serves the Châteauguay Valley, does not have a contract with Can-Share Connection, he said.
“Whereas Can-Share Connection Inc. has submitted a compliant tender bid of $500,000 per year,” the May 28, 2014 school board resolution awarding the “performance-based commission contract” said. The maximum total value of compensation to Can-Share Connection is $2.5 million over the five years, it said. That was based on the EMSB anticipating earning annual revenue of $2.5 million from Chinese students recruited by the company for each year of the contract, it said.
However, the EMSB’s payments to Can-Share Connection have far exceeded $500,000 per year.
The school board says it paid Yao’s company $1.39 million in the 2014-15 school year, $2.53 million in the last school year and $356,880 so far in the current school year under the recruitment contract.
The EMSB, meanwhile, reports it had gross revenue of about $9 million from international vocational students from all countries in the last school year. The board currently has 1,342 international vocational students enrolled from different countries paying an average tuition fee of $24,000.
How does the EMSB explain the higher payouts to Can-Share Connection?
The $2.5 million anticipated annual revenue for the EMSB from Chinese students “was used as an approximate amount of tuition expected to be generated per year over five years,” the school board said in a written response to the Montreal Gazette. “It was not a maximum.”
It turns out the EMSB has been paying commissions to Can-Share Connection for Chinese student recruitment since 2010. The 2014 contract was merely the first time the board had gone to public tenders. Provincial law for contracts awarded by public bodies requires a public call for tenders for any contract over $100,000.
The EMSB has paid Can-Share Connection $5.66 million in commissions for Chinese student recruitment since the 2010-11 school year, including under the current contract, its figures tally.
On top of the $5.66 million, the EMSB has been paying Can-Share Connection a 2- to 2.5-per cent commission for referring community groups to the EMSB to offer some vocational programs “in the community,” the EMSB said.
The EMSB says it paid Can-Share Connection $174,150 in 2014-15 and has paid it $107,389 so far in the current school year for referring community groups that “offer their premises to enable the EMSB to run some vocational programs and support the students.”
Yao and her husband, Ouyang Zhi, registered Can-Share Connection in February 2004. The company is registered at a home they own in the western part of Montreal Island and has no employees in Quebec.
The network of people who work with me to recruit students have been successful because our students are our primary concern and they come first.
Vocational programs for international students have been in the news lately since the Quebec Education Department and the province’s anti-corruption squad, UPAC, announced investigations of unspecified alleged irregularities at two boards — English-Montreal and Lester B. Pearson School Board.
Yao declined an interview request and didn’t answer the Montreal Gazette’s questions by email this week, saying she was too busy assisting students with end of semester.
In a later email message, she wrote: “We have no comment at this time out of respect for the announced investigation by the Ministry auditors and UPAC. We can assure you they and the board have our full assistance. Our focus has and will continue to be to tend to the educational needs and well-being of our students.
“The network of people who work with me to recruit students have been successful because our students are our primary concern and they come first.”
Yao said she hasn’t been contacted by UPAC.
Other School Boards
Yao’s clientele also includes Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board, serving Laval, Lanaudière and the Laurentians, which says it has had a “verbal agreement” with Yao’s firm since 2012, the year it began its international program.
Sir Wilfrid Laurier spokesperson Maxeen Jolin said the board pays its only Chinese recruiter a “standard agent commission of 20 per cent, which is built in the tuition fees.” However, the board told the Montreal Gazette to file an access-to-information to find out how much it has paid Can-Share Connection.
Riverside School Board, serving the Montérégie region, has just 15 international students currently enrolled in its vocational programs, and it, too, has paid Yao commissions, which totalled $78,703 in the past three school years.
We don’t have the means to go to China to recruit ourselves, so it cuts the cost.
She’s the only agent bringing in international students for Riverside, but the board doesn’t have a contract or exclusivity with Yao, director general Sylvain Racette said. Yao brings students from China, “but we might have others registering with us directly.”
“We don’t have the means to go to China to recruit ourselves, so it cuts the cost,” Racette said of working with a representative. Like Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Riverside board pays a 20 per cent commission to Yao per recruited student, which is included in the tuition fee charged to the student.
Eastern Townships School Board, which says it has worked with Yao and her company since about 2008, pays Yao a three-per-cent management fee on tuition fees charged to Chinese students. But she only recruits for the board’s youth sector. The board uses a different company, CIS Expert, to recruit international students for the vocational sector, spokesperson Sharon Priest said.
The Eastern Townships board pays a 15-per-cent commission — directly — to each agent recruiting in China, Priest added.
Yao’s three-per-cent cut is “a nominal management fee to Ms. Yao because she manages the agents in China.”
Priest said she wasn’t able to say how much the board has paid Yao’s firm.
In other countries where the board recruits, “we deal directly with the agents,” she added.
The Eastern Townships board has verbal agreements with Yao and CIS Expert, and has written agreements with the individual recruiting agents, Priest said.
With the language barriers, cultural barriers, we just feel it’s easier that we have someone shall we say managing all of that.
“We’re very satisfied with Ms. Yao’s services,” she said. “We’ve always been well-served. Our students seem to be quite pleased with the services.
“With the language barriers, cultural barriers, we just feel it’s easier that we have someone shall we say managing all of that — vetting, checking out and so forth the agents on site in China.”
Western Quebec School Board lists Yao as international student representative on its website. The board said Can-Share Connection began working for it on a 20 per cent commission through a letter of agreement in 2015. The board has paid about $240,000 to the company.
Of the three remaining English school boards that don’t work with Yao, two don’t have international students.
The third, Lester B. Pearson School Board, is the only English board in Quebec that recruits international students and that does not work with Yao. The board contracts a company in China, called Canabridge.
EMSB’s contract with Can-Share
The English Montreal School Board appears to be the only board that’s working with Yao to have a written contract with her firm.
When the EMSB went to public tenders in 2014, the contract specifications sought candidates with vast experience in recruiting Chinese students to Quebec educational institutions.
Fifty per cent of the grade to qualify for the contract required bidders to have recruited at least 450 Chinese students for professional training in Quebec in the three previous school years. Another 30 per cent of the grade required four years of experience in the area. A further 15 per cent required bidders to have at least two representatives on contract in at least 20 large cities in China. The remaining five per cent of the grade required bidders to provide reference letters from three educational institutions that are current clients.
The call for tenders, which closed in March 2014, elicited one bid, and it was ruled “non-conform.” The non-conform bidder was Can-Share Connection.
The board cancelled the call for tenders and extended an existing contract it had issued to Can-Share Connection in October 2013 without a call for tenders. That untendered contract ended up paying Can-Share Connection $280, 324.
The board went back to tenders in April 2014, and again Can-Share Connection was the only bidder. This time, the company’s bid was ruled conform and it obtained the contract.
A financial windfall
The school boards say they don’t mind that Yao recruits students for other school boards at the same time.
“As long as Can-Share provides good service to the EMSB, we have no objection to the company working with other English boards,” the EMSB said in its response. “Actually, sometimes there are more Chinese students who want to come to Quebec than we can accommodate at the EMSB.”
New Frontiers School Board has generated $7.3 million in net revenue from international tuition fees over the last three school years, helped by the influx of students from China.
With Bill 101, we don’t have a lot of means of getting new students in.
“We are very satisfied with our experience with international students from China,” NFSB’s Buttars said, adding that it brings cultural diversity.
The extra revenue has allowed NFSB to invest in equipment, support to students with special needs and some infrastructure, he said. It also means more course choices, including times and locations, for local students, and more jobs for teachers and staff in the region, he said.
Riverside’s Racette said international recruitment is the only avenue for anglophone boards to increase enrolment, which brings more funding from the Quebec government.
“With Bill 101, we don’t have a lot of means of getting new students in,” Racette said. “We cannot welcome the new immigrants. So there’s an opportunity there (with international students) to … bring more vitality to our offering.”
ACDSA Editors note: The main question is about why the International revenue is handled so mysteriously by some school boards. At the LBPSB, there isn’t even a line in the annual report about the amount of money taken in. We are talking about 20 million dollars with no accounting of it. That is the real problem. As for the LBPSB monthly audit committee reports, they have all vanished from their site. Why?