Image via WikipediaNEW DELHI—Vipin Sehajpal has worked for the past two years at a call centre on the outskirts of India’s capital, helping frustrated Dell computer owners solve technical problems.
But when he connects with a caller from Canada, the 26-year-old pauses before dispensing advice to pose a few questions of his own.
“I mostly ask about the weather, food and what life is like,” Sehajpal says.
It’s knowledge he plans to put to use in a few weeks.
Barring last-minute problems, Sehajpal will be leaving India in late December to enroll in a two-year website design course at Lambton College in Sarnia.
His pursuit of a Canadian education highlights a growing trend in India.
While Canada for years was regarded of as a sad-sack afterthought by India’s brightest college-aged students, that perception is changing fast. The number of Indian college and university students studying in Canada has surged fourfold over the past three years.
Canadian diplomats say they expect to issue student visas to as many as 14,000 Indian students this year and perhaps more than 20,000 in 2011.
In 2008, Canada approved just 3,152 visas to Indian students.
The increase comes as Canadian schools strengthen ties in India, which is among the world’s most promising markets for international students and higher education. Nearly one-third of India’s 1.2 billion population is under the age of 15 and the country’s 50 million strong middle class is expected to grow 10 times by 2025.
At the same time, the Canadian government has pledged to triple two-way trade with India to $15 billion over the next three years and adding international students will help. A recent Canadian government study showed the average international student adds $25,000 to the local economy.
David Manicom, a diplomat who heads the immigration department at Canada’s mission in New Delhi, said he was flummoxed when a group of Canadian university presidents recently toured India and spoke publicly about their efforts to coax Ottawa to increase its $1 million global budget for marketing post-secondary education. Australia, university officials pointed out, spends $20 million a year.
“The truth is that we’ve already come a long way in a very short time,” Manicom said. “The perception is that we’re trailing Australia still but that couldn’t be father from the truth.”
Manicom said there are several reasons for the dramatic increase.
For starters, unlike some other Western countries, many foreign college and university students who study in Canada gain credit towards becoming a permanent resident.
But Manicom and Canadian college officials say an overhaul of Canada’s student visa program is more responsible for the turnabout. For the past two years, the Canadian mission in New Delhi has partnered with 38 Canadian colleges to create the so-called Student Partners Program.
Under the program, colleges work more closely with the Canadian mission to understand which students will likely be approved for visas.
For instance, schools now insist students submit grades from the International English Language Testing System, or IELTS, which is run by a British group. In past years, students would provide results from a number of less reputable English proficiency testing agencies.
The mission also demands students provide financial guarantees from chartered Indian banks.
“We had cases where a student would say they had an uncle with fields of rice paddy who was willing to promise to cover their school costs and other instances where families had the value of their gold assessed as proof of their financial wherewithal,” Manicom said. “It was totally unreliable.”
Manicom said the high commission is also working more closely with schools to winnow out immigration agents who recruit under-qualified students.
Since the student visa program’s overhaul two years ago, the approval rate for Indian students applying to Centennial College has climbed to 87 per cent from 37 per cent and the number of Indian students at the Toronto school has climbed to 1,400 from 350.
“In past years, the biggest complaint we had was that it took too long for students to have their visas processed, but it’s much less cumbersome now,” said Virginia Macciavello, an official with Centennial.
Canada is also making inroads in India thanks to a public relations disaster for Australia’s educators.
While Australia has drawn more than 90,000 Indian students annually in recent years (the U.S. attracts about 105,000 Indian overseas students a year), the number of students here applying for visas to Australia has plunged by 80 per cent, Western diplomats say.
Over the past two years, Indian media have furiously chased stories about racial attacks on Indian students in Australia. There were 14 attacks during one five-week stretch in 2009, with TV channels running incendiary headlines such as “Curry Bashing” and “Australia, Land of Racists.”
Manicom conceded that Canadian officials “watched what was happening with Australia and we knew there would be some backwash.”
But Macciavello said she isn’t worried about a similar imbroglio in Canada.
“We’ve been recruiting overseas students for 30 years and we just haven’t seen any problems like that,” she said. “Canada’s just much more multicultural.”
Canadian schools also demand high IELTS test score, sometimes as high as 6.5 out of 9, to root out less qualified students who might drop out for a grey-market job. Some schools in the U.K., by contrast, demand a 4.5 IELTS score, meaning students would probably struggle to understand classes taught in English.
On a recent afternoon, Sehajpal and several other potential students crowded into an immigration agent Bhagirath Bhardwaj’s office in the heart of New Delhi.
Bhardwaj, who is paid a commission of about $150 for every student he sends abroad, said Canada is becoming a much more popular destination for students from the Indian capital region.
“I think there’s an understanding here that the Canadian economy is outperforming others and there’s a real opportunity there,” Bhardwaj.
“Immigrants have a real chance in Canada because you have such an aging population. The average Canadian is 44, which the average American is 34 and the average Indian is 26.”
Aayezah Jameel, a 30-year-old single mother, said she’s been researching Canadian schools for the past year and is now saving up, with the hopes of traveling to Canada for studies in the spring of 2012.
“When you’re a mother, planning like this takes time, nothing happens fast,” she said. “It’s a big commitment and a big deal for me because I’ll be asking my mother in Bhopal to watch my daughter for me while I’m overseas.”
Jameel, whose English was flawless, said considered schools like U.C.L.A. and the University of Texas before shifting her gaze to Canada.
“There’s really no difference with Canadian schools except they cost less,” she said. “The faculty and curriculum are just as good. I know. I’ve checked.”
Sitting next to his mother, Sehajpal, who also has a computer science degree from Agra University, said his parents forbid him from going to school in Australia. Instead, he considered schools in the U.S. and U.K. and Canada.
“Canada has a bright future and I’m excited about the possibility of staying there after school for a job,” Sehajpal said. “I’ve never seen snow before. What’s that like?”