George Brown College said in its 2007 course calendar that the eight-month international business management program would give students "the opportunity to complete three industry designations/certifications" in addition to the school's graduate certification.
The students weren't interested in the college certificate, the court decision said. They already had other degrees and diplomas. What they wanted was the industry designations and the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit said it was their only reason for enrolling.
But George Brown didn't actually offer those designations. Instead it prepared students to pursue the designations if they chose to do so at an extra cost to them.
Lawyers for George Brown argued that a "reasonable student" who did due diligence, researching on the industry websites, would know that the college was only providing preparation for future completion of those designations.
Ontario Superior Court Judge Edward Belobaba disagreed, saying the description "could plausibly be interpreted as meaning exactly what it said."
George Brown clarified its course description to reflect that after students complained, but the foreign students were still out their nearly $11,000 tuition.
There were about 120 students in the program and two-thirds came from other countries such as India, China, Turkey, Brazil, Russia and Syria.
"The students were, to say the least, disappointed," Belobaba said in his decision.
"Having paid a substantial tuition fee and related travel and living expenses, they could not afford the additional time or money needed to pursue the three accreditations on their own."
The amount in damages George Brown must pay will be determined at a later court hearing. Affected students are entitled to at least an amount "by which the student's payment under the agreement with (the college) exceeded the value of the program provided," Belobaba said.
The course description amounted to negligent misrepresentation, Belobaba found, but this one "careless" mistake shouldn't impugn what is otherwise a highly regarded school, the judge said.
After the students complained, George Brown "scrambled" to arrange reduced fees for the designation exams and waiving one-year work requirements, Belobaba noted, though the college continued to insist "there was nothing inaccurate" in the original program description.
George Brown College spokesman Brian Stock says the school is working to provide students with the information they need to make course selections.
"Obviously the issues in this case are very important to our students and we take them seriously," he said.
"We're considering the ruling very carefully and we'll consider appropriate next steps based on the judge's decision."
About 239,000 full-time international students attended Canadian colleges and universities last year.