East West College, located on the second floor of a strip mall on Robson Street in Vancouver, claims on its website to offer classes in esthetics, film, traditional Chinese medicine, floristry, baking and pastry arts.
However, the private post-secondary school operates out of a small office space directly above a wine shop and deli counter. The only thing advertising the school is a small sign with the words “East West College, TMC Clinic” printed on a white piece of paper and taped to the door.
Also taped to the door and shoved beneath it, on a recent visit in late January, were several pieces of uncollected mail including bills and letters from B.C.’s employment standards branch. There weren’t any students around.
That’s because the school had its certification cancelled by the province’s private training institutions branch, the government agency that regulates private colleges in B.C.
A cancelled certificate means the institution must stop providing or offering any programs that have a tuition of $4,000 or 40 hours or more of instructional time. The school can’t apply for a new certificate for at least a year.
East West College is one of two private colleges that have had their Private Training Act certification revoked in 2023. The other is the DC School of Aesthetics in Coquitlam.
They’re among the 280 private colleges and universities in B.C. that are coming under greater scrutiny as the provincial government cracks down on so-called diploma mills, including those that collect high tuition fees from international students while offering a poor education.
The post-secondary institutions will face greater scrutiny from the private training institutions branch, must be more transparent with tuition fees and prove that new programs meet labour market demands. Those that don’t meet the higher standards run the risk of being shut down or barred from accepting students from abroad.
The promised crackdown was announced shortly after the federal government said it was implementing a two-year cap on international undergraduate students. Ottawa’s cap is an attempt to respond to the countrywide housing shortage and stories of students from abroad being duped and exploited by unethical private schools.
Many international students have complained about shelling out exorbitant tuition fees only to find the school is operated out of a rundown building and most of the classes are online.
According to enforcement data provided to Postmedia News, the branch has ramped up its inspections and penalties in recent years. It doled out 21 administrative penalties and $12,500 in fines in 2023, almost double the 11 penalties handed out the year before, with a total of $4,000 in fines. In 2021, it handed out five administrative penalties and $3,750 worth of fines.
East West College was given two fines of $1,000 each in December for offering a career training program when it didn’t hold a certificate and continuing to advertise to international students claiming to hold a designation certificate when it didn’t.
The college, which also has a second location on Imperial Street in Burnaby, had its certification revoked in September for posting “false, deceptive and misleading statements” on its website and for advertising and offering programs that weren’t submitted to the private training institutions branch for approval.
East West College had been the subject of several inspections by the branch and in March was issued a “compliance order” for offering programs in a facility “that is not appropriate for the number and variety of programs.” Inspectors found safety issues including exposed wires, inadequate lighting and improper storage of traditional Chinese medicine.
Reached by phone in late January, the college’s director, Sherry Han Chen, said she’s appealing the branch decision and intends to sue the branch for actions she said are illegal.
Han Chen said between two and 10 students graduate from the school each year, all of whom are local. She said the school has no international students although the website said the school’s target market “covers people from different classes and cultural backgrounds, whether they are Africans, whites, Latinos, Indians and Asians.”
Asked how many students are currently enrolled, Han Chen said: “Right now, we don’t have so many because they cancelled our school.” She said the cancellation has been bad for the school’s reputation.
She denied being one of the so-called diploma mills or “bad actors” that the government is targeting.
“We do everything very good,” she said. “They (the branch) are the ones against the law. They just lie.”
East West College is a branch of a larger company called Goldenline International Media.
According to documents filed in B.C. Supreme Court by B.C.’s employment standards branch, the company violated the labour code by withholding thousands of dollars in wages for several employees. Han Chen was ordered to pay the employees and pay a combined $2,500 in fines.
According to its website, Goldenline has a media and film production company, and a real estate marketing service that creates 3D rendering for development projects. It also claims to have a lab and research centre that is responsible for “patent projects and the research and development of traditional Chinese medicine, integrated Chinese and Western medicine, beauty and health-care products.”
Goldenline International Media Foundation, according to the website, is a non-profit organization that “aims at promoting the influences of Chinese traditional culture, as well as amalgamation of Sino-western culture.” The website says East West College “aims to cultivate a new generation of high-tech professionals.”
The other private school that lost its certification last year is the DC School of Aesthetics in Coquitlam. According to the employment standards branch, the school also operated a secondary website for Bon College that isn’t certified.
The branch said the institution offers unapproved programs “under the auspices of Bon College but for which students pay DC School of Aesthetics and which are entirely provided by DC School of Aesthetics.”
The institution also “implemented a change to tuition and related fees before providing the required notice” to the branch, it said.
Postmedia reached out to the school by email for comment and didn’t hear back by deadline.
Both East West College and the DC School of Aesthetics are appealing the certificate cancellation.
Five colleges have had their certification cancelled since 2019.
In addition to East West College and the DC School of Aesthetics, the Canadian Arts & Sciences Institute had its certification cancelled in 2019, the Canadian Health Care Academy in 2020 and the Hilltop Academy in New Westminster in 2021.
In 2023, in addition to the two colleges whose certifications were cancelled, three colleges were suspended and the branch issued 16 administrative penalties.
The Post-Secondary Education Ministry hasn’t released details on whether the branch will hire more inspectors to carry out the crackdowns promised by the government. The branch has eight full-time inspectors and several other support staff. The ministry said inspections usually take place on-site but some work is done electronically.
Premier David Eby has said in the past that inspections of private schools were initiated by student complaints.
The problem with the complaint-based system, Eby said, is that many international students come from countries that lack strong governance or oversight and are reluctant to complain about the quality of instruction at a post-secondary institution or an unscrupulous immigration agent because they’re worried about losing their visas.
“That puts the responsibility on us to make sure they’re protected,” Eby said Thursday during an unrelated news conference. “So we’ll be strengthening our oversight directly and moving away from the complaint based system because it’s not working to address the issues that students have been facing.”
With files from Jason Payne
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