Karan Singh says his parents decided to send their son to Canada because they thought he’d get into fights at home.
The 20-year-old, who studies criminology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) in Surrey, B.C., hails from the tiny village of Bakipur in Haryana state, in northern India.
He said his parents thought he’d be safer halfway across the world because of the turbulent political environment in India.
“There are not a lot of opportunities available to the youth [if] we compare to Canada,” Singh said. “The political situation in Haryana at the moment is not very well.
Singh is among hundreds of thousands of Indian students who are choosing to call B.C. and Canada home, leading to a sharp rise in new student visa applications since 2015.
While Singh cites personal safety as the main reason for coming here in December 2021, experts say there are specific circumstances that have triggered a sharp influx of students from India recently.
India and South Asia have historically been large contributors to Canadian immigration — more than five per cent of British Columbians speak Punjabi natively.
However, the biggest driver of immigration recently has been post-secondary education and the promise of the Canadian dream.
In 2015, student permit applications from India were nearly on par with those from China.
Seven years later, applications from India made up nearly half of all the student permit applications between January and June, while those from China — the second-highest contributor of international students — remained relatively stable.
There were nearly 509,000 university students in B.C. during the 2020/21 academic year, according to a ministry spokesperson. Of those students, 151,185 were international students.
A 2017 report estimated that a quarter of all international students in Canada were in B.C.
Youth unemployment and rise of middle class
Henry Yu, a history professor at the University of B.C., said in an email that the sharp rise in applications from India can be attributed to a growing middle class in the country that can afford to send their kids abroad.
Research shows that the Indian middle class has grown substantially since economic reforms were implemented in the 1990s, with a consequent increase in spending power.
Shinder Purewal, a political scientist at KPU, also says the varied fields of study offered in Canada are attractive for youngsters in India, especially given the high youth unemployment rate.
“Keep in mind — India has the largest under 25 or younger population in the world,” he said. “Job opportunities for such a large number of people are rather limited in India.”
Purewal also says that India’s private and tech sectors — which have been growing rapidly — don’t offer the job security or benefits that Canada’s employers do.
For Sana Banu, who came to Canada in 2018 to study advertising at Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ont., the promise of permanent residency and the ability to contribute to Canada’s diverse workforce was a big draw.
“Canada is in need of skilled immigrants and skilled workers to further their economy,” she said. “I found that Canada has a very accepting culture.”
Disparity in fee structure
International education is seen as a marker of skill, according to researchers, leading to a parallel economy in India that seeks to send students abroad.
Tashia Kootenayoo, the secretary-treasurer of the B.C. Federation of Students, says many of those students come here in unstable circumstances.
“In our data and surveys … almost half — 47 per cent — of international students do not have strong financial resources,” she said. “Most students report that they are surprised by the cost of living here in British Columbia.”
Kootenayoo says that the federation found that international students made up about 20 per cent of an institution’s overall student population, but they paid nearly half the total tuition fee revenues.
“Their fees are being used to make up for the gaps in [university] operational budgets,” she said. “This is an issue that the provincial government needs to address.”
According to Kootenayoo, surveyed students — many of whom are from India — have reported a rise in food bank use in recent years.
“The province is allowing institutions to exploit these students. That is a very unfair system and unjust,” she said.
Kootenayoo and the federation are asking for more public funding for B.C. institutions, as well as regulations freezing and capping the fees international students pay.