A last-minute addition to Bill 96 that would require international students in some continuing education CEGEP programs to take a French exit exam will likely drive some away and exacerbate the province's labour shortage, some college directors are warning.

The Attestation d'études collégiales (AEC) programs in question are short technical training programs thousands of adult students take annually. Most are international students, and the programs are designed to lead them right into the job market.

The new requirement blindsided the director of TAV College, Eli Moroz. It has created "a tremendous amount of frustration… the frustration is not knowing," he said.

"We don't know what to tell students. I'm actually very scared to admit students right now for the fall semester. You know, we don't want to have students register in the program and then have them go through two years of studies and then be faced with a situation where we can't give them their certificate."

TAV College is allowed to admit the greatest number of AEC students among English CEGEPS (541), according to the new admission caps set by the government.

The new rule also creates more upheaval for CEGEPS, already grappling with other new obligations.

That includes organizing new French courses and a French exit exam for students who don't have English eligibility, and who are in programs that lead to a traditional Diploma of College Studies (DEC).

The AEC specification published in the national assembly's Gazette Officielle du Québec on May 3 stipulates that students completing training in the English programs have to prove they've reached "Level 7 in oral expression and comprehension" and "Level 4 in written expression and comprehension."

It applies to students who start the program as of July 1, when the draft regulation in the newly modified language law, known as Bill 96, comes into effect.

To prove their proficiency, students will have to take a standardized test. Only if they pass it will they be granted their AEC certificate.

A memo CTV obtained that was prepared for teachers at one Montreal CEGEP defined Level 7 as intermediate and Level 4 as "the most advanced of the beginner levels."

"That's going to be an additional burden to the student. It could require several hundred hours of French language courses in addition to the requirements of their AEC in a particular field," said the director general of Vanier, John McMahon, where the admission cap for AEC students is 300.

McMahon said there needs to be more clarity about where students are supposed to take extra French courses and whose responsibility it will be to offer the test.

"Right now, we're planning as if we will be delivering those language courses as part of the program," he said.

He said it will also likely represent an additional expense for students who will have to enrol in extra language courses to ensure they're at exactly the level required to pass the exam.

"And that's where it becomes challenging. An international student has options in Canada. They can come here to Montreal, or they can study in Ontario or Alberta, British Columbia, without the language requirements," McMahon said.

He said that if Montreal loses a competitive edge over other cities, it will have a trickle-down effect.

"If the requirements of the language law dissuade international students from entering those key programs where there is a labour shortage, it will have an impact," said McMahon.

CTV News asked the French language and higher education ministries about the last-minute additions to the legislation and the potential effect on AEC students and CEGEPS.

A spokesperson from the French language ministry said they will respond to our questions at the beginning of next week.

On Tuesday, May 30, some information arrived. In an email, the ministry explained that CEGEPs would only receive detailed operations instructions when the regulations are adopted.

However, a spokesperson said that while CEGEPS will have to ensure the AEC students meet the French language requirement before issuing an attestation of college studies, "colleges are not obliged to provide French courses."

International students will be able "to take advantage of Francisation Québec's services."

As for any additional financial burden for students, the ministry said students who do need to prove they meet the language requirements, "will indeed have to pay the cost of taking a standardized test."

Colleges will not however be responsible for administering the French tests, but can choose to offer them if they have the proper accreditation.

THE VALUE OF AEC PROGRAMS

The continuing education programs given in French and English provide graduates with an (AEC) and generally take 6 to 18 months to complete.

There are dozens of programs, including early childhood development, agricultural business management, transition to nursing, accounting services and information technology.

TAV College has a lot of students in the Special Care Counselling program, computer programming and internet marketing programs, which all have excellent employment rates, Moroz said.

"For example, in our internet marketing program, there's practically a 100 per cent employment rate there. They're getting jobs immediately, and there's a huge, huge demand and labour shortages in those fields as well," he said.

The institutions are being constrained, however, between the new French exams and the admission caps, and growth potential is being squashed, he added.

"We would accept many hundreds more students, but we've closed, we've really closed the admission to those programs. I can't tell you precisely (how many students) because we're not interested in processing applications when we know we can't admit them," Moroz said.

COULD AFFECT DAYCARES

An early childhood education teacher for English AEC programs at several Montreal-area CEGEPs is also concerned about the sudden changes. Her classes are indeed filled with international, not local, students.

"I would say about 90 per cent of my students are from India or Iran," said the teacher, who CTV is not naming because she fears her job security could be affected by speaking out.

She agreed the new French exit exam will dissuade interested international students because it would put a lot more "stress" on their shoulders.

That's a shame, she said, because Quebec needs many more daycare workers, something she hears when she visits daycares two to three times a week.

"I go to French daycares and English daycares because I'm also doing French internships. From what I see in every single daycare… they're all missing educators. Nobody has enough staff. They are constantly asking me - I need people, do you have anybody?"

Neither she nor McMahon is downplaying the need for all students living and working in Quebec to be proficient in French. But McMahon is frustrated by the government's last-minute addition of a formal test and the lack of information about how it will all work.

"We have stated that we are absolutely supportive of preserving and promoting French for our students. But the timing, the time to implement was crucial, given the realities we're facing."

"We have to implement these requirements in August. We're already in May. We're recruiting students. Now we've already recruited students who were unaware of these details," McMahon explained.

He also fears that once prospective international students hear about the requirements from recruiters, it will slow down enrolment for years to come.

MacMahon said they would have at least appreciated a gradual rollout so they and the international students would have had time to adapt.

"The English colleges have a very crucial role and have [helped] support the Quebec economy for the last 50-plus years. But if we are consistently hammered with regulations that are in many ways unfair, then it becomes difficult for us to support those other objectives in the labour market," McMahon said.

At College Marie-Victorin, a French CEGEP with an English satellite campus, spokesperson Julie Martin confirmed that 100 per cent of the now government-capped number of AEC students studying in English there (232), are immigrants.

"Only the new students (as of July 1) will have to pass the test. If needed, we will make sure they have all the support and resources that they need to help them with this new procedure," Robert said in an email.

There is still time for CEGEPs or concerned individuals to submit their comments on the draft regulation. The deadline is mid-June.

The Federation of CEGEPS' spokesperson Judith Laurier, told CTV on May 17, they "have not finished writing up their position."

This story has been edited to reflect new information provided to CTV by the French language ministry on May 30, 2023.