India-Canada spat ‘could hit international student flows’

New Delhi could wreak considerable damage to Canadian universities by playing on Indian families’ concerns over student safety abroad, says academic

September 23, 2023
Little India in Toronto

An escalating diplomatic row between Ottawa and New Delhi has the potential to deter thousands of Indian undergraduates from studying in Canada, academics have warned.

After Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau suggested that India might have been behind the assassination of a Sikh leader and Canadian national in British Columbia, New Delhi closed its visa-processing centre for Canadians, halting the issuing of new visas.

Academics warned that if the rift were to grow, it could have devastating consequences for student mobility.

“If the Indians and/or the Canadians…cancel visa issuing, that’s a huge problem,” said Philip Altbach, professor of higher education at Boston College.

Although he said he doubted it would come to this, he noted that one did not have to look far to see what happened when a country weaponised education, with the Trump-era attempts to stop issuing US visas to Muslim countries causing a large dip in student numbers from affected countries.

Although the number of India-bound Canadian scholars and students was so small as to be a “non-issue”, traffic in the other direction was substantial, he said.

More than 40 per cent of the 800,000 international students in the country in 2022 were from India, making it the largest source country for overseas learners.

Ratna Ghosh, professor emerita of education at McGill University, suggested that Indian students might choose to head elsewhere.

“Certainly that is a possibility, especially because the UK has made it easier for qualified students to stay on. The US is always attractive for higher degrees,” she said.

“Since Covid, international student flows have taken a turn, and Indian students are going to other countries in Europe and Asian countries such as China. South-South exchanges have increased considerably. With international universities opening branch campuses in India, many have the choice to get foreign degrees without the extra cost of going and living in Canada.”

Although scholars doubted that India could stop students from going to Canada, they said it could still wreak considerable damage in other ways.

“There isn’t any formal control per se that I could think India could implement – I don’t think they would either – but definitely they could discourage Indian students by many means,” said Roopa Trilokekar, an associate professor of education at York University.

Such methods could include warnings over security risks, tapping into Indian families’ concerns about sending their children overseas or playing up instances of anti-immigrant sentiment, she said.

Dr Trilokekar said that policymakers would be wise to recall the situation in Australia several years ago, when Indian student numbers dipped substantially after New Delhi expressed misgivings about treatment of its students there.

“It is a clear case where education was taken up as an issue at a diplomatic level and it did influence student mobility,” she said.

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Reader's comments (2)

The diplomatic row between Canada and China has already taken a toll on academic collaboration and student flows.
Yet again, political posturing impeding education and all the other stuff universities do.