Diplomatic spat upsets student plans, raises backlash fears

Ongoing diplomatic tensions between India and Canada have cast a pall of uncertainty over the plans of prospective Indian students, some of whom are delaying the start of their studies. For those already in Canada there are fears of a possible backlash and discrimination.

The Indian Embassy in Canada has suspended visa services for those wanting to travel to India after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that a potential link was being investigated between the Indian government and the killing of separatist Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in a Vancouver suburb three months ago.

Both countries have expelled a senior diplomat from their respective countries and issued travel advisories to their citizens.

Approximately 226,000 students a year from India pursue education in Canada, and the number continues to grow, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) data.

According to IRCC, 434,899 international students arrived in Canada in the first half of 2023, of whom 175,021 or around 40% are from India.

A major concern among students is the possibility that Canada will stop issuing visas to Indians, which will have a big impact on outbound student numbers.

While education consultants in India are keen to stress that the situation for prospective students remains normal, students fear the row could escalate and lead to the halting of visas by the Canadian embassy in India or, at the very least, to delays. Many have invested substantial amounts of money in their study abroad plans.

Deferring the start of studies

Representatives of Canadian universities, who were in the southern city of Hyderabad for an education fair on 22 September, said the ongoing diplomatic row could cause visa delays for Indian students and possibly affect the spring academic session due to begin in January.

They pointed to the possibility of delays in securing study permits and have advised students to defer their start date to the fall session which opens in August 2024.

Pradip Singh in New Delhi, who planned to enrol in college in Canada for the session commencing January 2024, said he has deferred his enrolment to the following session (August 2024) instead, hoping diplomatic tensions will settle down.

“I had chosen Canada because of high-quality education combined with liberal government policies related to post-study work and immigration,” said Singh in reference to Canada’s post-graduation work permit which allows graduates to stay and work in Canada for up to three years and thereafter apply for permanent residency. “But the growing diplomatic tension between the two countries is not helpful for students like us,” he added.

A student who did not want to be named said he had already secured admission at a college in Canada. “Things were proceeding smoothly. I also obtained a bank loan to pay the tuition fee and meet other expenses. I have to deposit the course fee but I don't know what to do now. There are many other students like me who are in a fix,” he said.

Canada is the first choice for students from Punjab State in particular, and if diplomatic ties become further strained, this would have a significant impact on applicants from that region.

Downplaying concerns

Many education consultants in Punjab and New Delhi have been working to allay the fears of students and their parents, saying the situation right now is ‘perfectly normal’ and there is nothing to worry about.

“While such concerns during diplomatic tensions are natural, it’s important to note that the Canadian government's visa processes have remained consistent with established policies,” said Maria Mathai of MM Advisory Services, an education consultancy.

“Canada has demonstrated no inclination to take a stance which will inconvenience Indian student mobility. Any potential delays are likely to be temporary, and students should continue to follow the standard visa application procedures,” said Mathai, who is also a former director of the Canadian Education Centre India.

“It’s challenging to predict the precise impact on student enrolment numbers. I expect there will be a short-term impact, especially for the January (winter) intake,” said Mathai. “But in the long term, it’s good to remember that Canada's position as the No 1 study destination for Indians is grounded in its world-class education and inclusive society.”

She said the “core attractiveness” of Canadian education would endure, despite existing concerns.

Safety of students already in Canada

While parents of some students in India believe India’s suspension of visas to Canadians is merely a way for the Indian government to express its displeasure with Canada and hope the confrontational situation will not last long, many others are concerned that those children already in Canada could face discrimination or bias based on their nationality, or be exposed to security risks.

Parvinder Singh, a resident of Jalandhar city in Punjab, whose son is at a Canadian college (he declined to share more details of where or what he is studying), is worried his son may “feel distracted” due to the tensions between the two countries.

“Friendly relations between the two countries and a peaceful environment are a sort of assurance that our children will be safe and their needs will be fulfilled,” he said. “But now we are feeling insecure and our children in Canada are also anxious as they feel they will have to bear the brunt of strained (India-Canada) relations.”

Nitin Bhargava, who has two children studying in Canada, said it was natural for parents to be worried because India’s Ministry of External Affairs said in its advisory: “Given the deteriorating security environment in Canada, Indian student in particular are advised to exercise extreme caution and remain vigilant.”

Bhargava explained: “So we are worried and are only praying the situation doesn't worsen. I want this issue to be resolved as soon as possible.”

The Ministry of External Affairs advisory issued on 20 September said Indian nationals and students from India in Canada must also register with the High Commission of India in Ottawa or Consulates General of India in Toronto and Vancouver through their respective websites.

“Registration would enable the High Commission and the Consulates General to better connect with Indian citizens in Canada in the event of any emergency or untoward incident,” it said.