The explosive growth in the number of Indian students abroad was one of the defining stories of the last decade in international education.
Today, India is home to the largest population of young adults (aged 18 to 23) worldwide, with nearly 150 million in 2020.1 And while the Indian young adult demographic is expected to decline slightly over the next 30 years, India still projects to have the largest young adult population of any country through 2050. India is also projected to become the world’s largest middle class consumer market by 2030.2
Key Insights at a Glance
- From January to September 2021, nearly 115,000 Indian students were approved to study in Canada, helped by a jump in approval rates and enthusiasm for the PGWPP.
- Six times as many Indian students submitted applications to study in the US through ApplyBoard in 2021 as did in 2020.
- The number of Indian students in the UK grew by 52% between the 2019/20 and 2020/21 academic years.
- Business and management is the leading field of study for Indian students studying in the UK (44%) and Canada (37%). In the US, 78% of Indian students study or work in STEM.
- In Canada, health sciences and skilled trades workers are in high demand. In the UK, IT and health sciences have the most vacancies.
When we published our 2021 Trends Report back in November, we talked at length about key emerging markets for higher ed institutions. But no report on international education is complete without a discussion of the massively impactful Indian market. That’s why today, we’re publishing an update on Indian students studying in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. We’re covering how student flows to and from these countries have shifted, what students are studying when they get there, what post-graduation work opportunities exist, and much more.
India has been a key engine driving global talent development over the last decade. Armed with an international education and global experience, Indian students have founded startups, fostered communities, and bolstered family businesses both at home and abroad. Today, international education, with India at the forefront, is a key component of destination economies around the world. It’s also fostered closer ties between India and countries such as Canada, the US, and the UK.
Where Indian Students Are Studying
If we compare the growth of the Indian student population in Canada, the US, and the UK over the past five years, we see the countries have followed distinct trajectories. The chart below traces these paths:3
The number of Indian students studying in Canada grew by nearly 350% between the 2015/16 and 2019/20 academic years.4 At the same time, the UK grew by 220%.5 The number of Indian students in the US actually declined by 9% over the same period, though it’s worth noting that this data omits students enrolled in Optional Practical Training (OPT), the US’s popular post-study work program. More than 70,000 additional Indian students worked in the US under OPT in each of the last four academic years.
Let’s examine each of these destinations in more detail.
The Rise of Canada
Over the past decade, Canada has cemented its reputation for openness to immigration. The country has recognized the need for bright young international students to supplement declining domestic enrollment rates and fill labour gaps caused by an aging population. Canada’s robust Post-Graduation Work Permit Program (PGWPP) is a great example of a program designed to encourage international students to study and work in Canada. The PGWPP provides valuable Canadian work experience to eligible graduates, which in turn helps graduates qualify for permanent residence (PR).
As the chart below shows, there’s been an explosion of interest in the PGWPP from Indian students over the past five years, culminating in more than 70,000 PGWP approvals in 2020.6 Indian PGWP applicants had a greater than 95% approval rate over the five-year period.
The PGWPP has helped drive higher incomes for new permanent residents to Canada. Canadian permanent residents that held both a work and a study permit before receiving PR had average incomes 30% higher nine years after receiving PR than those who held just a work permit.
While the number of Indian students in Canada fell by 18% for academic year 2020/21, Canada has seen a massive influx in Indian students in the 2021 calendar year. From January to September 2021, nearly 115,000 Indian students were approved to study in Canada. This surpassed the previous record of 111,110 in 2019. Based on historical trends, we estimate that more than 140,000 Indian students were approved across full-year 2021. That total is 25% higher than 2019.
An increase in study permit approval rates has helped fuel this growth:
After hovering between 64 and 68% for four years, the study permit approval rate for Indian students tumbled to 49% in 2020. A major driver of this drop was the increased difficulty students had obtaining the necessary documents for study permit approval due to COVID-related office closures, particularly early in the pandemic. Between January and July 2021, however, the approval rate ticked back up to 67%, the highest rate since 2016.
US Has Trended Down, but Future Is Looking Up
Set against the growth in Canada, the decline in the number of Indian students in the US is striking. But taken alone and with a slightly wider timeline, we can see a couple of clear trends in the US data:
Indian enrollment in the US peaked in 2008/09 at the beginning of the global recession, declined for four years, then experienced four years of growth, highlighted by a 38% spike in 2014/15.7 President Trump’s election, and the controversial rhetoric and immigration initiatives that came with it, contributed to another four years of decline, punctuated by a pandemic-related drop of 16% in 2020/21.
The good news? President Biden’s administration has consistently embraced international education. A historic joint statement by the US Departments of State and Education last July laid out a series of commitments that should appeal to Indian students. These included partnering with the business community to further international education, using technology to expand access to international education, and welcoming international students to the US in a safe and secure manner.
There’s some good news out of India, as well, where the US embassies in New Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, and Hyderabad are once again open for visa interviews. Last week marked the first time since March 2020 that all embassies in India are open.
At ApplyBoard, we saw a massive spike in applications to US schools on our platform. Six times as many Indian students submitted applications to study in the US through ApplyBoard in 2021 as 2020. With such strong interest among Indian students in the US and the country once again signalling that it’s open for business, we’re optimistic for an uptick in the number of Indian students coming to the US as well, though it will likely take a few years to get back to 2016/17 numbers.
Graduate Route Has UK Primed for Further Growth
While Canada and the US saw significant pandemic-related decline in Indian student inflows, the UK did not. In fact, according to new HESA data, the number of Indian students in the UK grew by 52% between the 2019/20 and 2020/21 academic years.
There are other positive indicators for Indian students coming to the UK. The UK launched its own Graduate Route (GR) last July. The GR provides an opportunity for international students who have been awarded their degree to stay in the UK and work for two years (or three years for doctoral students). It is a key part of the UK government’s efforts to grow the total number of international students studying in the UK to more than 600,000 by 2030.
At ApplyBoard, we’ve heard a lot of interest in the GIR from our recruitment partners in India—and the feeling is mutual. Sir Steve Smith, who was named the UK’s International Education Champion in 2020, has identified India as a target country for the UK higher ed sector moving forward. It’s easy to see why: according to UCAS, UK undergraduate applications from EU countries fell by 43% year-over-year in 2021. The UK needs international students more than ever, and Indian students fit the bill.
What Indian Students Are Studying
We can trace the preferences of Indian students beyond their destination countries of choice by looking at the study levels and fields they select. The data shows some real divergence across destinations.
College, Business Programs Attract Indian Students to Canada
In Canada, Indian students have long gravitated toward college programs, typically post-graduate. More than two in three Indian students coming to Canada pursue college studies, as the chart below shows:
Nearly four times as many Indian students were approved for college studies across the first nine months of 20218 as were approved to study at university. Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, is by far the top target. In fact, the 12 most popular institutions in Canada for Indian students are Ontario colleges.
With just 3% market share in the K-12 sector, it’s clear that few Indian students come to Canada with kids in tow, or send their secondary school-aged children to study in Canada. The “other studies” sector includes private language schools, language programs offered by colleges and universities, and certain vocational programs offered only in the province of Quebec. Just over 1 in 10 Indian students were approved to study in this sector between January and September 2021.
What are all of these college students studying? In a word, business. Business and management programs accounted for 37% of study permits approved for post-secondary students over the first nine months of 2021. This was well ahead of computing and IT, which was next at 20%.
The dominance of business and management programs has steadily increased over the past five years:
Business and management gained more than 12 percentage points of market share between 2016 and 2021 at the expense of a wide range of fields. Coupled with the overall growth in the number of Indian students coming to Canada, the number of Indians approved to study business and management in Canada grew from a little over 11,000 in 2016 to almost 43,000 across the first nine months of 2021.
Many of these students will return home to work in business in India. But for those students who do aim to stay in Canada, it’s worth noting that there’s a real disconnect between what Indian students are studying in Canada and where Canada’s most pressing needs for skilled workers lie.
There were nearly 110,000 job vacancies in Canada’s healthcare and social assistance sector in June 2021, the highest vacancy count for any Canadian industry on record.9 And while need may decline slightly as the pandemic comes to a close, Canada’s aging population means these jobs will remain in high demand for the foreseeable future.
Canada’s skilled trades sector is facing its own critical labour shortage. The number of vacant jobs that required trade or apprenticeship certification grew by 175% from 2015 to mid-2021, hitting nearly 80,000. And this gap is likely to widen. According to Employment and Social Development Canada, 700,000 skilled tradespeople in Canada are expected to retire in the next 10 years.
Indian students looking for job security and a clear path toward permanent residency in Canada after graduation would do well to consider health sciences and skilled trades.
STEM Attracts Majority of Indian Students in US
Down south, the picture is quite a bit different. Driven by the large volume of top-tier research and technical institutions in the US and the eligibility of STEM graduates for an extra two years of work experience under OPT, STEM programs lap the field in terms of popularity.10
Roughly one in three Indian students in the US in 2020/21 studied or worked in math and computer science, while another one in three studied or worked in engineering. In total, 78% of Indian students in the US studied or worked in STEM,11 the third-highest total among the top 25 countries sending international students to the US. In contrast to Canada, just 12% of Indian students studied or worked in business. These trends have been largely stable over the past five years.
Business Programs Dominant Choice for Indian Students in UK
Turning to the UK, we see a similar breakdown to what we saw in Canada. A strong plurality, 44%, of Indian students in the UK study business and management. Math and computer science is next, at 17%. The chart below shows the full breakdown:
Since the 2016/17 academic year, the proportion of Indian students in the UK studying business has risen by five percentage points. But the real growth has been in math and computer science, which rose from just 7% market share in 2017 to 17% in 2019/20. This growth was driven almost entirely by growth in computer science, part of a larger uptick in interest in the UK and around the world.
Some good news for Indian students hoping to remain in the UK to work post-graduation: the information and communications sector has one of the highest vacancy rates in the UK, at 5.5%.12 And this rate has been above the average for all sectors since mid-2020. The UK health and social work activities sector also has a high vacancy rate (5.1%). This is not strictly a product of pandemic-related demand, either: the vacancy rate in that sector has remained above the all-sector average since 2013.
Both sectors offer Indian students strong opportunities to pursue post-graduation employment.
A Bright Outlook for India and Its Students
The future for Indian international students is extremely bright. While student inflows to Canada and the US fell considerably in 2020 with the pandemic, they’ve come roaring back in Canada, and early signs suggest a strong rebound in the US as well. The UK’s outlook is also rosy, given its proven ability to resist pandemic-related decline and its increased focus on Indian students.
That’s not to say that there aren’t causes for concern. Some of our partner schools in Canada have expressed concerns about an overreliance on Indian students, worried that an economic downturn in India or an erosion of the relationship between Ottawa and New Delhi could dampen student inflows. But these risks are low. Indian students are held in high regard by Canadian institutions, and Canada’s need for Indian talent is acute. We believe that as long as Indian students continue to show interest in Canada, Canada will continue to show interest in Indian students.
As we’ve seen, the US and UK are primed to target Indian students as well. As those countries look to build their international enrollment, India is likely to take centre stage. And where institution concerns about overreliance on one country for international students may hurt Indian students in Canada, they might help them in the US and the UK, where China is the clear number one provider of international students and India presents an opportunity for schools to increase student diversity.
At ApplyBoard, we’re extremely excited about the future for Indian students. It’s why we’re continuing to offer promotions like our Better Together program. Better Together gives our Indian recruitment partners the opportunity to earn advance commissions and cash bonuses for Summer and Fall 2022 tuition deposits made between now and the end of April.13
We’re looking forward to continuing to work with our many dedicated recruitment partners in India, and to continuing to help Indian students access high-quality education around the world.
Published: January 25, 2022
About the ApplyInsights Team
1. UN Population Prospects, 2019.
2. Mark Abssy, Lenore Elle Hawkins, and Chris Versace, “World Reimagined: The Rise of the Global Middle Class.” Nasdaq, July 9, 2021.
4. All Canadian data courtesy of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).
5. All UK data courtesy of the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) except where noted. HESA updated their research methodology ahead of the 2019/20 data release to “provide a more complete picture of higher education.” Previous values understate the number of Indian students studying in the UK.
7. US data courtesy of the Institute of International Education (IIE).
9. All Canadian job vacancy statistics courtesy of Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey.
12. Office for National Statistics, Vacancies by Industry, 18 January 2022.