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Canadian universities see spike in Iranian applicants

When the University of Alberta tallied its applications from international graduate students wanting to study in Edmonton this September, the school noticed something new.

Typically, the largest group of students comes from China, followed by the United States and France. But this year, Iran led the way with 618 masters and PhD applicants, a 60-per-cent jump from 2008.

The Islamic republic erupted in turmoil this summer, when a disputed election led to mass protests both inside the country and around the world.

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"This year there is a very dramatic increase, and in all likelihood the political reason may play a role," said Britta Baron, provost and vice-president (international) at the University of Alberta.

"They are well-trained by Iranian universities, the language barrier is not very serious and they seem to integrate very well."

It's a trend that has been noticed at other schools across the country and was happening even before this summer's unrest.

The number of graduate students from Iran tripled between 2002 and 2006, according to figures from the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. Iran ranked sixth among countries sending graduate students to Canada in 2006, the association said.

At McGill in Montreal, Iran ranked 14th in 2003. It is now eighth, with 149 grad students accepted in 2008.

Lissa Matyas, recruitment director at McGill, said the jump is, in part, a result of a targeted marketing campaign. McGill advertises fellowship opportunities to students in specific faculties at prestigious Iranian schools.

"The admission in engineering has skyrocketed due to this pro-active approach," said Ms. Matyas, who added the difficulty Iranians have applying for visas to study in the United States has also been a boon for Canadian universities.

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The brain drain from Iran to Alberta is good for both the University of Alberta, which is trying to recruit more researchers, and for the students, who are looking for more opportunities, said Professor Alidad Amirfazli, who is originally from Iran.

"In Iran, education is also a praised value, and Canada needs a knowledge-based work force," Prof. Amirfazli said.

Students in the Middle Eastern country have to pass a national exam to get into university and, similar to undergraduates in Canada, they have to spend four years studying before applying to a graduate program. They come to Canada from top-notch schools such as Sharif University of Technology or the University of Tehran.

Kasra Nikooyeh is not surprised Iranian engineers are choosing Alberta to continue their careers.

The 26-year-old chemical engineering student said Iranian students are using blogs and e-mails to share their stories with their peers back home.

"There are five or six schools in Iran where the students are coming from, so the word of mouth has a significant impact in this recruitment."

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Some of the students are snatched up by oil companies and energy contractors in Alberta.

However, others have dreams of returning home.

Mahdi HajiAghayi is in his second year of a PhD program at the University of Toronto. He completed a masters program at the University of Alberta two years ago.

"Now it's easier to come because there is a bigger community of Iranians performing well, but the job opportunities here remain limited," he said.

He is planning to finish his degree in Canada and then go back to Iran.

"I want to pass my experience to the future generations there and I am very positive that the situation in my country will improve."

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