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Governor General David Johnston gesture during an interview at Rideau Hall February 19, 2014 in Ottawa.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

As he prepares a passage to India, Governor-General David Johnston knows there's a goal to attract more of the subcontinent's students to Canada. But he also has an eye on promoting traffic in the other direction: seeing more Canadian teachers and students travel abroad.

In his low-key way, Mr. Johnston has fit his own passion for international education into a major Canadian objective: drawing foreign students paying higher international tuition fees into Canadian schools.

When he leads an eight-day mission to India on Saturday, it will focus in large part on furthering the government's efforts to double the number of foreign students in Canada – following the example of other Western countries, such as Australia, which have found that educating the rapidly growing middle classes of emerging nations such as China and India can be a money-spinner.

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But it also serves as a way to open Canada to the world, with the potential return a long-term expansion of trade and other ties – because foreign students are more likely to do work that links their native country to the land of their studies. And it works in both directions.

"I'd be much happier if we were in a league with Australia, where [education for foreign students] is in their top-three export industries," Mr. Johnston said. "And then, of course, come all of the other benefits to a country that is educating others countries' students, and encouraging our own students to travel, live, work, study in those other countries – because out of those relationships, some very long, enduring, good consequences follow."

The former president of the University of Waterloo and principal of McGill has in some ways been at this for a long time. This will be his fifth visit to India in the past eight years. As Waterloo's president, he worked to build research exchanges and twinned Waterloo with one of India's new Institutes of Technology.

But this governor-general, who has adopted the relatively low-profile style of viceroy as public servant, stresses that from the first he told officials he wanted his travels to play a part in a Canadian agenda, not his own.

"Their question was, 'What part of the world do you want to visit?'" he said. "My answer was none. Where do you want me to go?"

That led to travels to more than 30 countries, with foreign students a central thrust. That agenda was first driven by universities and colleges, then backed by the Conservative government as a vast trade opportunity. Chinese students alone brought in $1.8-billion to Canada in 2010, according to a government-commissioned report.

India, with its growing middle class but shortage of universities, is one of the biggest markets. Mr. Johnston argues it's an opportunity for Canada – which can leverage a high-quality, relatively low-cost education system, and a reputation for safe cities and openness to other cultures.

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But he noted the countries he's visited, including Brazil, China and India, are interested in more than a destination for their students. "They want the capacity to build their talent," he said.

Canada can make a real contribution in countries such as India, he said, by exporting lessons of its high-quality education system, connecting universities and sending teachers abroad.

"The transfer would cover a range of things. Helping to develop talented young people. Helping to develop institutions that in turn educate the talented young people. Helping them build research collaborations so that their ideas, their basic knowledge is enhanced," he said. "But it's a wonderful two-way street, because we gain so much from those exchanges."

Mr. Johnston wants to send Canadians abroad – something he sought to encourage at Waterloo. His own five daughters started international exchanges – in China, Latin America and elsewhere – at age 12, "and it's been the best part of their education," he said. They were lucky, but it's not the norm in Canada, and it's increasingly important, he said: "If I had my druthers, every Canadian university and college student would spend time abroad as part of their program."

It's very important that Canada be an international country, he said. "And if we could focus just on the business of young people having a better knowledge and understanding of, and interest and sympathy for other cultures, you would find so many other specific advantages flow from that, including the trade ones."

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