India Canada row could hit international education

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Earlier this week, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau announced that security agencies were pursuing allegations of a “potential link” between the death of Canadian citizen and Sikh Khalistani separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar and the government of India.

Nijjar was shot in his vehicle three months ago next to a Sikh temple in a Vancouver suburb.

Multiple “tit-for-tat” moves have been made by both sides, with India responding to the initial Trudeau speech saying Canada was “shifting focus” from Khalistani separatist “terrorists” that were in the country.

It also warned its citizens in Canada, including the thousands studying at institutions across the country, to “exercise utmost caution”.

India seems to have suspended visas for Canadian nationals, with the visa outsourcing service provider BLS International stating on its website that, “Due to operational reasons, with effect from 21 September 2023, Indian visa services have been suspended till further notice.”

The BLS Canada website as of September 21.

Canada has said it will be “adjusting” diplomatic presence in India for the safety of its nationals on the ground, but stated that its high commission and all consulates in India remain “open and operational”.

One diplomat had already been expelled from India on September 19 – the ministry of external affairs in Delhi said that the High Commissioner of Canada to India was “summoned” and informed of the move. The diplomat will need to leave India by September 24.

“The decision reflects government of India’s growing concern at the interference of Canadian diplomats in our internal matters and their involvement in anti-India activities,” the ministry said.

For Mike Henniger, chief operating officerIllume Student Advisory Services, the speed and intensity of the diplomatic row has “taken everyone by surprise”.

“Students and agents are expressing anxiety over the situation”

“The reverberations are being felt immediately,” he told The PIE. “We have had one high-level institutional delegation cancel an upcoming trip to India already and students and agents are expressing anxiety over the situation.”

It is not the first time that the sector has been hit due to diplomatic tensions with key student source countries. In 2018, the sector was “caught in the crossfire” after Canada’s foreign minister spoke out about human rights issues in Saudi Arabia. Following a row, Saudi students on government scholarships were ordered out of the country.

A distinguished fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, Rohinton Medhora,  told BNN Bloomberg earlier this week that “a lot depends on how each country’s government handles the public relations and strategic side” of the row.

While there is “no indication” that Indian students will stop arriving in Canada right away, “if this crisis becomes worse”, Delhi may – especially for students funded by government scholarships – “direct them to other countries with very good universities – Australia, the UK, the US – that too could be an economic consequence of this crisis”, Medhora suggested.

“It is just another big question mark for Canada’s most significant student recruitment market”

In statement to The PIE, interim president and CEO of Universities Canada, Philip Landon, said, “Canada’s universities take great pride in cultivating safe and inclusive environments that cater to the diverse needs of both domestic and international students.

“Universities are committed to offering a wide range of services that support the wellbeing and success of every student, regardless of their background or origin,” he added.

“International students bring important knowledge, diversity and skills to our campuses and workforce, and we must continue to welcome them to study at Canadian universities.”

This latest fallout could be worse than the Saudi incident as India is Canada’s biggest source of international students.

India and Canada’s relations have been strained for some time, with issues continuously affecting Indian international students. Some were close to being deported after a rogue education agent forged documents, with multiple arrests made and charges brought against agents.

Amid a difficult housing crisis, Canada is also said to be mulling the idea of a cap on international students to help ease the issue.

“There has been so much uncertainty for international students over the past three years and now it is just another big question mark for Canada’s most significant student recruitment market,” Henniger added.

“At Illume, we are working to facilitate communication with students being impacted and support them as much as we can. Personally, I am optimistic that in the long term the strong relationships between Indians and Canadians will prevail.”



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