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International Trade Minister Ed Fast.SEAN KILPATRICK/The Canadian Press

The federal government is committing to nearly double the number of international students in Canada by 2022, hoping to be more competitive in the global rush for bright minds by linking its educational brand with trade diplomacy.

International Trade Minister Ed Fast unveiled an international education strategy on Wednesday. Its goal is to have 450,000 foreign students in Canada by 2022 – one of several recommendations adopted from an advisory panel report the government commissioned in 2011.

The strategy signals a desire to make Canada a top education destination. Mr. Fast stressed that "access to global talent" is a key to the country's future productivity and trade, for the skills students can bring to the work force, their economic impact while studying and their potential as informal ambassadors if they return home. But it is funded with modest investments promised in past federal budgets, leaving doubts about whether it is enough to compete with such education powerhouses as the United States and Australia.

"Some of you may suggest that we're just catching up with some of our fiercest competitors in the field of [international] education, and there may be some truth to that," Mr. Fast said. "We must leverage international education to Canada's maximum advantage."

Canada hosted more than 265,000 foreign students in 2012, up 94 per cent since 2001, and new growth is expected to come mostly from emerging countries. The new education strategy taps China, India, Brazil, Mexico, North Africa and the Middle East and Vietnam as priority regions where Canada will concentrate its recruiting efforts. Those six regions were also chosen to dovetail with Canada's new Global Markets Action Plan, to promote education and trade together to foreign partners.

The government will spend $5-million annually on education marketing abroad – funds that were first announced in 2011 but have yet to be used. And it will roll out $13-million in scholarship funding promised in the 2013 federal budget, to bring in foreign students and send Canadians abroad. But some higher education leaders have said that is precious little funding to boost Canada's profile globally.

Mr. Fast insisted the funding is "sufficient" and that, over time, the government is "committed to bringing the resources to bear to achieve the objectives that we've set out."

The government hopes its strategy will reap financial rewards. Foreign students in Canada spent $8.4-billion in 2012, and if schools collectively hit the government's enrolment target in 2022, Mr. Fast expects international student spending would rise to $16.1-billion. Students from abroad who learn skills in Canada could also help fill labour shortages as they arise, he said.

Reaching the new goal will not be easy. Canada faces stiff competition for top students, and Mr. Fast acknowledged the strategy cannot succeed unless students can get visas quickly and have a better chance to settle in this country through programs such as the Canadian Experience Class. He promised a streamlined process for granting study permits, and new rules to allow some foreign students to work part-time off campus.

Although many aspects of the strategy are still broadly aspirational, universities and colleges welcomed it as a statement of Canada's ambitions.

"It sends a signal outside of Canada," said University of Western Ontario president Amit Chakma, who chaired the government's international education advisory panel. "It's one thing for a bunch of university and college presidents to say things, but it's another thing for the government of Canada to formally announce a bold strategy."

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