Is Canada losing ground as a preferred destination for Indian students?
- Indian agents are generally optimistic that demand for study in Canada will remain strong despite the current diplomatic dispute between Canada and India
- However, experts in the field also consider that Canada’s brand position in India is weakening, which may be ominous given that many Canadian institutions are heavily reliant on this key sending market
A featured panel at the annual Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE) conference in Vancouver this week raised important questions about Canada's competitive position in the key Indian student market. The session – "Recalibrating Institutional Strategies for India" – included findings from a just-completed agent survey as well as insights from a panel of experienced practitioners.
The discussion opened with a summary of findings from a new agent sentiment survey conducted through November 2023 by Academica and Worldwide Educonnect. The survey captured responses from more than 1,000 agents in six countries: India, Nigeria, Ghana, Nepal, Bangladesh, and the Philippines.
Zeroing in on results from Indian agents, Academica President Rod Skinkle highlighted that most respondents remain optimistic about Indian outbound to Canada in the face of a diplomatic crisis that brought relations between the two countries to a low ebb this year.
Even so, when asked to what extent the deterioration in relations between India and Canada would affect their referrals to Canada this year, 61% of the responding agents said it would have a "slightly negative impact" and another 30% anticipated a "significant negative impact." Nearly four in ten (37%) said they expected to see a moderate or significant impact for the January 2024 intake, and 30% expected at least some negative impact for the September 2024 semester.
As we reported recently, a large number of Canada's diplomatic staff in India have been forced to leave the country, and this has impacted Canada's capacity to process visas and maintain normal outreach activities. The number of Canadian trade commissioners has been reduced from 13 to 1, for example, and the number of staff dedicated to visa processing has been reduced from 27 to only 5. Canadian Immigration Minister Marc Miller said recently that, as result of those staff reductions, the number of visas processed for Indian students will fall well below projections this year, and the department is anticipating that a significant backlog of visa files will accumulate by January 2024.
Mr Skinkle also shared findings indicating that just over a third of responding Indian agents felt there had been a significant shift in students' preference for Canada as a result of the current diplomatic crisis, with most reporting that student demand was shifting in favour of Australia and the United Kingdom. Respondents advised Canadian institutions to expand their communications and outreach efforts during the crisis to help counter this shifting demand. The top recommendation was to commit to frequent updates to agents and students via social channels, webinars, and email.
The stakes are high
Session Chair Wendy Curtis, dean of international for Fanshawe College in southwestern Ontario, underscored the importance of the Indian market for Canadian educators. There were just under 320,000 Indian students in Canada as of the end of 2022, she noted, representing nearly 40% of Canada's total foreign enrolment that year.
Referring back to cases of student exploitation or fraud covered in media reports over the last year or more, Ms Curtis said, "For the first time ever, there is a question in the minds of [Indian] parents about the safety of Canada."
"Are students and parents still proud to display a letter of admission from a Canadian institution," she continued, "or does that go to the bottom of the pile, superseded by our competition?"
Vinay Chaudhry is the CEO of Worldwide Educonnect, a market entry firm with offices in India that have referred roughly 35,000 students to Canada. In his perspective, the brand of Canadian education peaked in India in 2021 thanks to "the way we responded [to the pandemic] and the way we helped students." Since then, however, he feels Canada's position has declined steadily, not so much as a result of the current diplomatic dispute but as part of a larger pattern. He described that downward trend as "a journey from "wow" to "why."
Mr Chaudhry explained: "Two years ago, if somebody would get an offer letter from a Canadian institution, the parents and friends would say 'wow!' but now they say 'why?' – i.e., 'why are you thinking of Canada now?'"
Referring back to the agent sentiment survey findings, he added, "I'm not really worried about the numbers. India has a lot of students and they will likely keep coming. But what I'm really worried about is the quality of the students who are coming. I'm seeing a steady deterioration of the quality, and that anybody who looks at the [Canadian] brand might conclude that they are better off going to Australia or the UK right now."
He attributes this shift to the perceived accessibility of Canadian education. This stems in part from the large numbers of Indian students enrolled in relatively less selective college programmes, including those offered by private colleges via private-public partnerships. But Mr Chaudhry also points out that Canadian educators lack an in-market advocate for the brand – unlike their counterparts in the UK, who have the British Council, or institutions in Australia, who are supported by AusTrade. Lacking such an association, it is more challenging for Canadian institutions to provide a counter-narrative and to reinforce Canada's brand position. "When I go out to some of the important conferences in India, I don't see Canada there," he said. "I see only Australia, UK, and US that are partnering and investing."
The overall sense of the discussion was that Canada has in some respects taken the Indian market for granted, and that it will need to work harder going forward to further strengthen its position among Indian students and parents. "At the end of the day, the brand is only going to be as strong as the support we provide to the most vulnerable students," added CBIE President Larissa Bezo.
Strategies for the future
Dr David Ross is the president and CEO of the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), and he offered a few points from the perspective of an individual institution. "This is very much a risk management question," he began. "You as an institution have to pause and think. Are you vulnerable? Do you have risk in terms of how you are going about your international strategy? To me, when I hear about institutions that have 50%, 60%, or 70% of their international enrolments coming out of one country, that gives me great pause as to what those conversations are at those senior leadership tables. I would also say that we tend to go where some of the fruit hangs the lowest, and here we are in an existential crisis because many institutions are dependent on the financial reality of what the Indian market offers. If that's not a risk, I don't know what risk is."
Dr Ross went on to describe SAIT's approach to international, which relies on building a more diversified enrolment across multiple sending markets. "That costs money," he said. "And it takes time. We have limits on the number of students from any one country, and we don't go over those limits. No one country dominates [our foreign enrolment], and we target the highest [representation] at being around the 25-30% range…because we don't want that over-dependence on any one country."
He added that SAIT is also investing in strengthening student services and that the institutional commitment is to go further in this area. "Don't be afraid to do too much," he said. "That's going to give Brand Canada a boost and will at the same time serve you well when it comes opening up some of those other markets."
The key takeaways from the panel discussion were the importance of a renewed commitment to diversifying the foreign enrolment base, managing risk (especially in terms of avoiding an over-reliance on one market), and delivering excellent support services that help students to successfully adapt to life and study in Canada.
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