Until nine months ago, prospective students from India had to wait up to eight months for a visa to study in Canada – with many of them being rejected after a long delay or missing the course deadlines.

But a pilot program to fast-track applicants by Citizenship and Immigration Canada has dramatically reduced the visa-processing time to mere weeks for students like New Delhi’s Dharam Pratap Singh, 29, who is enrolled in Centennial College’s one-year project management post-graduate program.

Until the visa change was made, he says, students had to pay a fee and wait, possibly for too long, until they missed a term “and it’s a year lost.”

Canadian colleges laud the program, saying it will help them compete with schools in the United States, Britain and Australia in attracting international students, who pay far higher tuitions than local students.

The joint program between Canada’s visa offices in India and the Association of Canadian Community Colleges has tightened the screening of applicants. Among other things, college officials must verify an applicant’s financial resources and English proficiency.

“We want our international students’ first experience with Canada to be a welcoming one,” said Lorraine Trotter, dean of international and immigration education at George Brown College.

Under the pilot program, visa offices in India have received more than 4,000 applications with an approval rate more than double the previous year. Visa processing averages only 2 1/2 weeks.

As a result, Centennial College has seen its students from India increase from 450 to 975, with the visa-approval rate jumping from 27 per cent to 87 per cent.

“We want good students. Canada wants good immigrants. The program is marrying both,” said Virginia Macchiavello, Centennial’s international education director.

The number of foreign students in Canada has doubled since 1998 to 178,000, creating an estimated 83,000 jobs for Canadians last year. A 2009 government report found the students contributed $6.5 billion to the local economy.

As a result of globalization, George Brown’s Trotter said many colleges have developed international strategies that include the delivery of programs overseas through partners and the globalization of curriculum for Canadian students.

“Employers are always looking for global-savvy employees,” said Trotter, who just returned from a month-long tour of China and Korea to meet with overseas partners and promote the college.

Macchiavello said many visa students are keen on immigrating to Canada after graduation.

Their investment in a Canadian education can help cut integration costs, she said.

Rashmeet Kaur, a food and nutrition post-graduate student at Centennial, is one of those interested in staying in Canada.

“I like Canada,” the 23-year-old New Delhi native said.

“I like its multicultural environment.”

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