Canadian universities are reassuring Indian students of their safety and offering resources to deal with the uncertainty triggered by the diplomatic crisis between the two countries as they seek to limit the fallout on a booming business.
As Canadian colleges prepare to kick off another semester, some students are considering delaying their courses, while others are assessing whether higher education could become a collateral damage of the current crisis.
The diplomatic drift between India and Canada began in September after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said New Delhi may have had a hand in the murder of a Sikh separatist advocate in British Columbia. India denies the allegation vociferously.
India is by far Canada’s largest source of global students in the country’s fast-growing international education business, making up for roughly 40 per cent of study permit holders. International students contribute over C$20 billion (US$14.6 billion) to the Canadian economy each year.
According to estimates by consultants in India, over 100,000 students were preparing for the English language proficiency test and arranging financing to study in Canada next year.
Top universities in response are offering courses costing up to C$40,000 a year while colleges provide short-term, cheaper courses, to connect with students to ensure that the diplomatic spat does not damage one of Canada’s better-known exports.
Reuters spoke to more than a dozen universities and consultants in Canada and India who said they were taking measures to reassure students.
“We’ve also reached out to various partners in India, some of them are educational institutions, and foundations that we are working with to reassure our progress that we are committed to continuing on collaboration,” said Joseph Wong, vice president of the University of Toronto, which has more than 2,400 international students from India out of 86,297 it enrolled in 2022-23.
Canadian universities say the impasse may be short-lived, but questions linger about the upcoming semesters and students are asking about safety in Canada.
Ashok Kumar Bhatia, President of Association of Consultants for Overseas Studies said many Indian students are worried about their safety in the backdrop of heightened diplomatic tensions.
In response, consultancies like IDP Education are sending video messages to soothe nerves.
Kitchener, Ontario-based Conestoga College’s President John Tibbits noted about a hundred students out of the thousands that enroll every year were inquiring about deferring their course and current students want to attend classes online.
“Our biggest concern is the uncertainty. What might the Indian government do as far as visas and how might people react,” Tibbits said. “We are spending C$50 million a year for college on just support for students.”
International students have seen a strong growth in recent years, helping the industry to emerge as one of Canada’s biggest export sectors outpacing auto parts, lumber or aircraft. Last week, Canadian Immigration Minister Marc Miller described international students “an asset that is very lucrative.”
York University’s President Rhonda Lenton, who was in India when the news broke, expressed confidence the two governments will resolve the situation.
But in India, families and hopeful candidates in the state of Punjab are worried. In Punjab, which has a population of 30 million, almost every fourth family has a member studying or preparing to study in Canada.
In Punjab’s Amritsar, home to the Golden Temple, one of the holiest sites in Sikhism, over 5,000 students moved to Canada last year.
Taxi-driver Jiwan Sharma is contemplating whether it is the right call for his son to board the flight to Canada he booked recently.
“I have put my lifelong savings worth over 250 million rupees (US$3 million) for sending our son to Canada, hoping he would settle there, and help us in old age.”
There have not been signs of tensions easing. On Tuesday, Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly said Canada wants private talks with India to resolve the diplomatic dispute, after a report said New Delhi had asked the Ottawa to withdraw 41 diplomats.
Gurbakhshish Singh, a commerce student in Amritsar, said he is disappointed that India’s relationship with a welcoming country like Canada has deteriorated.
“The government has put our future in jeopardy.”