OTTAWA - Fifteen Canadian university presidents begin a seven-day visit to India on Monday.

Their mission — to sell their schools as the place to study for the children of the booming middle class of the world's most populous democracy.

With its population topping 1.1 billion and millions of middle class students seeking the right place to get a degree, Canadian universities hope India is ripe for the picking.

Officials will "promote Canada as a destination for higher education and to promote research collaboration internationally," said Paul Davidson, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.

Canada is home to one million immigrants from India. Yet this country is not on the radar of most Indians who consider studying abroad, he said.

Presidents from the Universities of British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, as well as Queen's, Wilfrid Laurier and Dalhousie are among those who will try to entice students to Canada.

University of British Columbia president Stephen J. Toope, who's part of the mission, said the goal is to tell the great story of university education in Canada — one of great quality and relative affordability.

University presidents will meet with Indian educators, government officials and business leaders. They will also attend a roundtable with 15 Indian university presidents, Canada's Minister of State Gary Goodyear and India’s minister of human resource development.

Some university heads will also meet students and school principals to make a personal pitch, said Robert White, senior policy analyst with the association.

"There's a growing pool of really talented students that we think we are not realizing our potential in recruiting, compared to other countries," said White.

Canada lags behind other countries when it comes to profile, marketing and branding, he said.

In 2008, of the approximately 160,000 Indian students who studied abroad, more than half — 86,000 — studied in the United States. About 30,000 registered to study in the U.K. and more than 27,000 went to Australia. Only about 3,000 came to universities in Canada.

There is amazing potential in India with its growing economy and revitalized research environment, said White.

India is on track to surpass the research capacity of other G8 countries within the next decade, the association said.

Universities want to tap into that and will seek to strike research co-operation deals during their trip, said White.

Not only do international students enrich the learning and research environment at Canadian universities but graduates build economic, diplomatic and cultural ties, the association said.

The delegation will also take part in a higher education summit organized by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

This is the largest delegation of Canadian university presidents to travel abroad and comes ahead of Canada's "Year of India" in 2011, the association said.

— By Pat Hewitt in Toronto