Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
27th Sep 2023

The Canada-India diplomatic crisis: Will the flow of Indian students to Canada be affected?

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • Canada and India are in the midst of a serious diplomatic rift, and there is a possibility that it will affect the flow of Indian students to Canada
  • India is by far Canada’s largest source of international students and immigrants
  • As yet, there has been little diplomatic progress on repairing relations between the two countries
  • The impasse may be short-lived or longer lasting

Canadian education institutions are bracing for a possible decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Canada due to rising political tensions between Canada and India.

Diplomatic relations between Canada and India are at an all-time low after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called an emergency session of parliament last week to announce that Western intelligence sources had “credible evidence” to suggest that on 18 June of this year, Indian government operatives assassinated a Sikh independence activist, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, on Canadian soil. Nijjar was advocating for an independent Sikh state called Khalistan, and the Indian government had considered him a terrorist.

The allegation is obviously extremely serious, and it was met with anger by India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who called it “absurd.” Immediately following Canada expelling a senior Indian diplomat, India responded in kind. The two sides have yet to make progress in arriving at a diplomatic resolution to the impasse.

Both countries mean a great deal to each other for numerous reasons:

  • India is expected to be the fastest-growing economy in the world next year and has rapidly ascended to the rank of power player on the international stage. It is Canada’s ninth largest export market. Western countries are at pains to solidify their relationship with India especially in the face of economic and geo-political competition from China.
  • There are close to two million Indians in Canada, representing 80% of Canada’s South Asian population and close to 6% of the total Canadian population. Indians are the top source of immigration for Canada, with 118,095 immigrating in 2022 alone. By contrast, the second largest source is Chinese students (31,815).
  • Many Indians in Canada are international students: there were 320,000 Indian students with active study permits at the end of December 2022, up 47% over the previous year. Indian students accounted for nearly four out of every ten foreign students in Canada as of the end of 2022.

Already, the mobility of tourists, businesspeople, and students has been affected. India and Canada have postponed trade talks that had been scheduled for October. And India has suspended visa processing services for Canadians, meaning that Canadians who were in the process of applying for a visa for India cannot (for now).

And some educational agents are beginning to send Indian students elsewhere.

Akshay Chaturvedi, founder and CEO, Leverage Edu, told The Times of India that:

“As an immediate precautionary measure, we are stopping all new applications to Canada until there is more clarity on the issue. We are asking our students to redirect plans towards the US or UK if possible, so we do expect this stand-off to affect the number of Indian students heading to Canada this year. There may not be a major impact policy-wise for Indian students, but there could be a possible drop in demand for Canada as a destination country. A lot of destination markets were waiting for Canada to slip up, and now the tides could move in their favour. We have been in constant communication with all our Canadian university partners, and they remain confident that this diplomatic rift will have no impact on the processing of applications or their ability to issue students a permit to enter Canada on a student visa.”

The Times of India reports as well that some Canadian institutions at a recent student fair in India were cautious in their advice for prospective Indian students wanting to come to Canada:

“Representatives of Canadian universities participating in an education fair in Hyderabad said that ongoing political conflict “…could lead to visa delays for Indian students and potentially disrupt the spring academic session scheduled to start in January. They suggested that students … should consider planning their academic session for the next fall/autumn session, in August 2024. With only around three months to go for students to travel for the spring batch, the visa processing time may pose challenges, they said.”

Other commentators are more measured. Rohinton Medhora, a distinguished fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, told Bloomberg News that:

“There’s no indication that this stream will dry up right away, but to the extent that Indian students were funded by government scholarships and if this crisis becomes worse and the government decides to do something about them and direct them to other countries with very good universities – Australia, the UK, the US – that too could be an economic consequence of this crisis.”

In 2021, Ontario’s auditor general Bonnie Lysyk issued a report warning that the Canadian province’s colleges were too dependent on international student tuition. She concluded: "That puts these institutions in a precarious position, should students decide to go elsewhere, or are no longer able to come to Canada to study.”

Canada is the largest enroller of Indian students of all the leading destinations.

John Tibbits, president of Conestoga College, in Ontario, Canada, told BNN Bloomberg last week that:

“We’re concerned, but we’re not panicking at this point. It would have a big impact on both sides if India decided they wanted to restrict the number of people coming here. We need the students and their skills and it would have a big impact on their families. So I’m hoping somehow the tension will diminish, but I understand it will take some time. We know Indian students could go to Australia, Great Britain or the US. But there’s a lot of diaspora in Canada and I think overall they consider Canada a country of opportunity and friendly to the Indian population. So I would think we would still be, compared to the US, a destination of choice.”

For current Indian students in Canada, the situation is worrisome. Sidhantdeep Singh, a computer science student at Dalhousie University, told CTV News that:

“Canada hasn’t given any information that they’re going to stop the [visa] services but I hope they don’t. “I was planning to bring my mom and dad soon to Canada because I’m going to graduate soon.”

Speaking with The National Post, Damanpreet Singh, the international student representative for the Canadian Federation of Students, said that students were “panicking” and that “This will definitely affect immigration. Both governments need to resolve this matter as soon as they can.”

If there is any through line between the different opinions, it is that there is a sense of worry, even panic, about the situation, but that only time will tell how affected the flow of new Indian students to Canada will be. Roopa Desai Trilokekar, a professor of education at York University, told The Globe and Mail:

“I would imagine that we’re going to see a dip. But I don’t know how large the dip will be. And it will depend on whether any official stances [relating specifically to international students] will be taken by either of the governments.”

For additional background, please see:

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