The Changing Face of Concordia in China

Looking at Concordia’s Recruitment Practices One Year After the Homestay Scandal

Tenant rights information provided by the Concordia Student Union Off-Campus Housing and Job Bank has been translated into Mandarin. Photo Brandon Johnston

Concordia’s student recruitment in China has a new face after allegations of abuse in its former program surfaced last year.

The Link reported last September that a man named Peter Low was contracted by the university as their recruitment agent for Chinese students. He promised prospective students admission into the university—even for those without the language requirement—“within a few days” according to an email seen by The Link. The process however cost thousands of dollars, and required living in a homestay for at least two months.

Low, who possessed an “” email domain, was offering services unmonitored by the university. While the homestays promised two to three meals a day, one student told The Link those meals consisted only of bread, sometimes with a hot dog.

The student was paying $900 a month without a lease for a homestay in N.D.G.—which he shared with 12 other people.

The Concordia Student Union’s Housing and Job Bank had heard other complaints of mistreated homestay tenants, but very few would speak out about their experience.

The students who came forward following the report by former Link reporter Riley Sparks were told by their parents back home not to speak out, according to Concordia Student Union Legal Clinic Coordinator Walter Tom.

“They don’t want any problems,” he said. “There’s a fear of the institution.”

While the university says only one case of abuse was uncovered, Tom says they’re not looking close enough.

Concordia’s China Recruitment Team started as a pilot program last spring, and has since been renewed for one year. The team consists of one Concordia student and three university staff members who are fluent in Mandarin.

The university, for the time being, has chosen not to contract another recruitment agent.

“It’s completely customary for universities to use recruiting agents when they’re operating internationally, especially where languages and customs are different,” said Concordia President Alan Shepard.

Recruitment agencies with offices in China require a government licence. Concordia’s team is based in Montreal and travels to China multiple times a year for recruitment events, including education fairs.

Bradley Tucker, Concordia’s associate VP Enrollment and Student Services, says having Concordia staff present who speak the local language is improving the information prospective students are getting, compared to when a hired recruiter was in charge.

“What I have heard is that the Concordia booths are buzzing, while other university booths are not,” said Tucker.

Concordia announced in January that a “blended approach” would be taken for recruiting Chinese students, meaning both university staff and third parties would find potential Concordia students, leading to increased and earlier involvement by the university.

Orchard Consultants Ltd., a Vancouver-based company run by Low, is not receiving any new work for the university, and its files are being handed over to Concordia’s China Recruitment Team, according to the university administration. The completion of the file transfer could not be confirmed by press time.

Orchard had been doing work for Concordia from 2007 to 2012.

“Every student who comes from China pays their fee to Peter Low,” one student told The Link last year. “Everybody.”

While Concordia doesn’t have their own recruitment agent anymore, they regularly communicate with agents hired by families of Chinese students looking to study abroad. It’s a necessity according to Tucker, who says that around 80 per cent of these students have their own recruitment agents.

“If an agency contacts us and says, ‘I have a student, what do you pay for commission?’ No, we’re not working with them,” said Matthew Stiegemeyer, director of student recruitment at Concordia.
If an agent approaches them with admission questions, the recruitment team provides the relevant information.

“There’s no money exchanged from Concordia to the agent. It’s really about information, so they can serve their client,” said Stiegemeyer.

“The biggest difference is even if the student and their family are using an agent on their behalf […] we’re able to reach them directly and walk them through the steps, in a language that the parents are familiar with,” he said.

Tucker said Concordia is also working to let students know that the only university-sanctioned housing is its residences. They’re also informing prospective students about HOJO so that they know their rights as tenants.

In the cases reported by The Link last year, homestay tenants had to give their landlord two months’ rent in advance, which is illegal under Quebec’s Civil Code.

This fall, international students were emailed links to HOJO for the first time, and the university helped HOJO translate their information packages into Mandarin. Concordia’s International Students Office pre-departure guide is also now available online in Mandarin.

“They don’t know what’s normal, just that they’re having a hard time,” said Leanne Ashworth, HOJO’s Coordinator.

After being granted a fee levy last spring by graduate students, HOJO’s services have now grown to cover them. Concordia’s Jesuit Residence is also open to graduate students this year.

Housing and student recruitment have been moved to the Office of the Provost, which oversees all things academic at Concordia. It was part of a larger shift in administration by Shepard this summer to, as he told The Link, put “the whole student experience” under one portfolio.

After a website redesign this year, also no longer links to external housing providers unaffiliated with Concordia.

“That was a big problem for us,” said Ashworth, who added HOJO screens what is included in their list of apartments available to rent.

Chinese Family Services of Greater Montreal was hired last winter to contact current students to uncover any cases of mistreatment.

Concordia’s administration says no cases were found except for the house in N.D.G. as reported in The Link.

“We found the methodology was grossly insufficient,” said Tom, adding that Chinese Family Services were not given enough resources to properly investigate.

He says students need to be confident that their coming forward will actually make a difference.

For Concordia’s part, they are trying different channels to make it easier for students to communicate with them, including their new use of Chinese social media such as Weibo and QQ.

“What we don’t want to do is create this sense that we’re asking for self-reporting behaviour, where people are putting themselves at risk,” said Stiegemeyer.

“I don’t want them to feel we’re monitoring them. There’s a bit of an arm’s length for authority.”

Concordia’s students come from over 130 different countries, with about 4,000 international applicants this year.

—with files from Riley Sparks & Corey Pool

A previous version of this story reported around 4,000 international students were admitted to Concordia this year. This number reflects the number of applicants, not those accepted as earlier reported. The Link regrets the error.