Diplomatic tensions between New Delhi and Ottawa threaten to curtail a relationship that funds a significant portion of Canada’s postsecondary education system.
The government of India issued a statement Wednesday warning Indian students in Canada about “growing anti-India activities and politically-condoned hate crimes and criminal violence.”
The statement urged students and other Indian nationals to exercise caution, but did not recommend against travel to Canada entirely. Instead it warned students of a “deteriorating security environment” and advised against visiting regions or venues targeted by those with what it called an “anti-India agenda.”
It’s the latest salvo in a growing diplomatic crisis between the two countries. On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in the House of Commons that Canadian security agencies had been pursuing credible allegations of links between agents of the government of India and the killing of a Canadian citizen, Hardeep Singh Najjar, who supported the movement for an independent Khalistan.
Canada expelled an Indian diplomat earlier this week and India responded by doing the same to a member of Canada’s High Commission in New Delhi.
There is some concern that the Indian government could continue to stir fears about conditions in Canada, which might diminish demand for Canadian postsecondary education.
India issued a similar warning for students in Canada last year, however, and it had little, if any, impact. At the time Canadian police services could not point to any rise in anti-Indian violence.
Students from India make up about 40 per cent of the more than 800,000 international students in Canada, according to the Canadian Bureau for International Education. They are by far the largest single group at Canadian schools, followed by China at about 12 per cent and the Philippines at 4 per cent. At least six Ontario colleges have more students from India than from Canada.
International student tuition, which is several times higher than for Canadian students, has become essential to the finances of many postsecondary schools.
Roopa Desai Trilokekar, a professor of education at York University, said there is some risk that if this diplomatic fight escalates, the government of India could use its platform to discourage Indian students from applying to Canada. Something similar occurred more than 10 years ago with respect to Australia, after incidents that targeted Indian students in that country, she said. Study applications to Australia subsequently dropped.
Canada was already getting negative press in India because of difficulties with housing and work conditions that many students face when they arrive, she said. The diplomatic feud will only heighten the publicity around some of these issues, she said.
“I would imagine that we’re going to see a dip. But I don’t know how large the dip will be. And it will depend whether any official stances will be taken by either of the governments,” Prof. Trilokekar said.
She said the Canadian government, which is reviewing its international education policies, should reconsider the role of education in its geopolitical strategy.
“It’s going to require rethinking. There’s a lot of dependence on students from India.”
Gautham Kolluri, an international student recruiter based in Ontario, said he has already heard from students concerned that supporters of an independent Khalistan would attack Indian students in Canada.
But Mr. Kolluri said he doesn’t believe this diplomatic dispute will seriously reduce the number of students interested in coming to Canada. Demand from India is very high, he said. And unlike Saudi Arabia, which recalled students on government-funded scholarships during a diplomatic dispute with Canada in 2018, India does not have a ready mechanism to alter student migration, he said.
Jaspreet Singh, founder of the International Sikh Students Association, said he doesn’t think the political tensions will affect Sikh international students in Canada. He said India is unlikely to shut off a migration path that offers opportunity to young people who might otherwise have difficulty finding work or a spot in a university.
“If they tried to do something like this, there would be a huge backlash,” he said.