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Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
22nd Nov 2023

How is Indian student mobility changing in 2023?

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • Indian outbound mobility is notably agile and capable of shifting quickly among study destinations
  • Geo-political events and visa processing times may be impacting the popularity of certain destinations
  • The UK, US, and Australia are recording significant jumps in Indian student numbers
  • Canadian institutions are challenged this year by a serious Canada-India diplomatic rift and its effect on the processing of Indian student visas

The shape of outbound mobility from India has changed over the course of 2023, with the UK and US gaining notable share of Indian students, and Australia recording significant growth in Indian enrolments compared with 2022.

The recruitment and admissions departments of Canadian colleges and universities, meanwhile, are being challenged by an as-yet unresolved diplomatic spat between Canada and India. That rift has diminished the capacity of Canada’s immigration department, IRCC, to handle Indian study permit applications.

Strained India/Canada relations are affecting visa processing

During an October 2023 meeting of the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration (CIMM), Immigration Minister Marc Miller said that only five immigration staff remain in India working on the processing of Indian visa applications, down from 27 before the diplomatic crisis began. He reported that:

  • The target of processing 38,000 visas for Indians by December 2023 will not be met;
  • Only 20,000 visas will be processed due to “limited resources and staff”;
  • The backlog of yet-to-be-processed Indian visa applications will amount to 17,500 as of January 2024.

Mr Miller said that Indian applicants should expect slower overall processing times and responses to enquiries due to limited resources within the department.

It is unclear when diplomatic relations will markedly improve between Canada and India. The Indian government is insisting that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau present proof to back his claim, made in September, that there was credible evidence to suggest that Indian government operatives assassinated a Sikh independence activist, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, on Canadian soil in June 2023.

However, last month India resumed the processing of entry, business, medical and conference visas for Canadian citizens. Visa processing had been halted at the onset of the crisis. Further easing of restrictions occurred this week when the government restored online visa services to Canadians. These developments suggest that some progress on repairing relations is being made by the two governments.

India remains far and away the largest sending market for Canadian educators. There were just under 320,000 Indian students with active study permits at the end of December 2022, and these students made up 39.5% of Canada’s total foreign enrolment. The Indian student market for Canadian institutions has grown by 46% since 2019.

UK gathers steam

Meanwhile, the UK granted just under 500,000 study visas for the year ending June 2023, and Indian students accounted for about 30% of that total. The nearly 143,000 visas granted to Indian students represents a year-over-year increase of 54% and puts India as the clear leading sender for the UK – a position it assumed about a year ago when it surpassed the historical leader, China, for the first time.

Study visas granted for students from top five sending markets, year ending June 2018 to year ending June 2023. Source: UK Home Office

University World News attributes some of the UK’s growing popularity to better visa procedures for Indian students, including a lower visa application fee and a new graduate visa route. They note: “According to the latest statistics, a total of 98,394 graduate route extensions were approved up to June, with over two-fifths (42%) being Indians.”

There was concern among British higher education stakeholders earlier this year that the UK government’s decision to ban international students (except for those in postgraduate, research-focused programmes) from bringing dependants with them as of January 2024 would depress Indian students’ interest in coming to the UK. So far this has not occurred, though there are signs the policy is dampening the volume of applications from Chinese and Nigerian students.

Major growth in Indian student numbers in the US

There are now almost as many Indian students in the US on active visas as Chinese students (253,631 vs. 262,992, respectively) according to new data from the Department of Homeland Security's Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). Since 2020, Indian student numbers have grown by more than 30%, in contrast to a -29% contraction of the Chinese market.

Research conducted by IIE in spring 2023 revealed that US institutions are prioritising India as a recruitment focus, which can only be helping to boost Indian numbers. India was the top focus for institutions recruiting for both undergraduate (57%) and graduate (77%) programmes.

There is also a national strategy at play. The US government had a target of processing more than 1 million non-immigrant visas from India in 2023. In September, the US Mission to India reported that it had already surpassed that goal and “processing almost 20% more applications than in pre-pandemic 2019.”

US Ambassador to India Eric Garcetti said:

“Our partnership with India is one of the United States’ most important bilateral relationships, and in fact one of the most important relationships in the world. The ties between our people are stronger than ever, and we will continue our record-setting volume of visa work in the coming months to give as many Indian applicants as possible the opportunity to travel to the United States and experience the U.S.-India friendship firsthand.”

34% jump in Indian students in Australia

Indian students are helping to drive the Australian international education sector’s post-pandemic recovery. Their numbers were up 34% in January-August 2023 compared with the same timeframe in 2022. Indian students now represent 17% of all international students in Australia, making them the second largest group of foreign students in the country after China (21%).

On 29 December 2022, the governments of Australia and India signed the Australia-India Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement (ECTA). The deal aims to boost each country’s economic growth through freer trade and close cooperation, and it paves the way for even more student mobility between India and Australia.

Under the terms of the agreement, Indian graduates of Australian institutions are permitted to remain in Australia to work for up to four years, and 1,000 Work and Holiday Visas are now reserved for Indian students every year.

In a statement about the ECTA trade deal, Dan Tehan, Australian Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment noted:

“One million Indians turn 18 every month, so there is a huge and growing demand for a high-quality education. As a world-class education provider, Australia well placed to partner with India across secondary, university and vocational sectors.”

At the same time, the Australia government and some universities are increasing their scrutiny of Indian applicants. Rejection rates for Indian applications soared in 2023, and as reported in India’s The Print, some universities elected to stop processing applications coming from Punjab, Haryana, Uttarakhand, UP, Gujarat and J&K. They cited “fraudulent documents and high dropout rates as reasons.”

Trends underline how quickly outbound can change

Diplomatic impasses. Visa processing backlogs. Mobility agreements. Intensifying recruitment efforts. These are just some of the factors that are affecting where Indian students are now choosing to study. India has quickly become as prized a market as China, if not more so, as governments and institutions increasingly realise the country’s potential to improve their fortunes and acknowledge India's rising geo-political power.

The number of Indian students enrolled in studies abroad is expected to climb from roughly 1 million as of 2019 to as many as 2 million by 2025, according to an analysis of Indian student mobility produced by University Living, Beyond Beds and Boundaries: Indian Student Mobility Report 2023. The report found that direct spending on study abroad by Indian students amounted to US$47 billion for 2022, a sum that is expected to climb to as high as US$70 billion by 2025, based on current growth rates.

In contrast, the authors of a 2022 analysis by international consultancy Oliver Wyman concluded:

"We expect the total number of Chinese students in overseas higher education degree programs to peak within five years, and then enter a track of stagnation or even slight decline.”

Various factors, from expanding higher education capacity in China to a shrinking college-age population, are likely to impact Chinese outbound mobility. However, there were also signs in 2023 that demand for study abroad among Chinese families is picking up again in tandem with China’s economic slump.

For additional background, please see:

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