Canada is failing to attract high-quality university students from China, India and Brazil, internal research commissioned by the Foreign Affairs Department concludes.
The findings of the focus groups conducted in those countries represent a setback to the Harper government's ambitious efforts to broaden Canadian trade and investment in the three emerging markets.
Initiatives designed to forge educational links have been a feature of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's strategy to deepen economic ties with Asia during his trips to China and India this year.
Meanwhile, Governor-General David Johnston travelled to Brazil in the spring with 30 university presidents in tow, one of the biggest delegations abroad to push the benefits of Canadian education.
Polling firm Ipsos-Reid said in its March report to Foreign Affairs that Canada needed to do more to "communicate its post-secondary education advantages" abroad.
Despite that conclusion, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird decided two months later to cut a popular program that promoted Canada in foreign universities.
The "Understanding Canada" program brought foreign scholars to Canada on the condition they teach university courses on the country for several years after they return home.
Canadian and foreign scholars have criticized the government for cutting the $5-million program because they say it will reduce awareness about Canada in foreign academic circles.
The cut was part of an effort to trim $170-million from Foreign Affairs' annual budget.
A senior government official defended the cutting of the Understanding Canada program .
"This program has traditionally funded foreign academics, not foreign students. What we have done is streamline its administration," the official said Tuesday on condition of anonymity.
The Ipsos-Reid research, conducted between January and March this year, found that awareness of Canada was lacking in China, India and Brazil.
"Canada is not a top-of-mind destination for foreign study for participants in any of the three countries except with Brazilian participants interested in language studies," said the research company's report.
"There is no awareness that Canada has world-class educational establishments, indeed, apart from a few mentions of the University of Toronto there is very little awareness of any Canadian educational establishments."
The United States and United Kingdom, by comparison, "dominate" discussions about post-secondary opportunities.
The report said that because having world-class educational institutions is a major draw for foreign students "this lack of prominence is a serious obstacle."
The findings were a result of 11 focus groups held in the three countries, and one-on-one interviews.
The participants included prospective students, parents and educational advisers.
Even though the report found some awareness in Brazil of Canada, it noted one factor that was not favourable: "The weather – COLD."
Prior to his Brazil trip in April, Mr. Johnston acknowledged that Canada has a mediocre record in attracting foreign students. But he insisted that Brazil was fertile ground, noting "a huge appetite in Brazil for Canadian education. To my great delight, Canada is the most favoured nation for Brazilians studying abroad."
The Ipsos-Reid survey found deficiencies in the main advertising brand that the federal government and the provinces use to promote Canadian education abroad: the bilingual "Imagine Education au/in Canada" promotion.
The Imagine initiative, with an annual $1-million budget, was launched in 2007 to convey "a message of openness and supportiveness through the concept of 'Empowered Idealism'," according to its website.
"Like those of our competitors, our education system is founded on quality, and our brand aims to convince international students that the quality of a Canadian education will provide them with the tools they need to develop their full potential."
The Ipsos-Reid report recommended some major changes to the brand because "it is confusing and not seen as sufficiently linked to education in Canada."
Focus groups wanted more specific information about the rankings of Canadian schools, top areas of study, famous and successful people who've graduated in Canada, and information about Canadian institutions in major publications.
"The absence of a clear national brand, which is present among Canada's competitors, leaves participants wondering who the sponsor of the communications is."
The Harper government has tried to make its own education inroads with India and China in recent years.
In 2010, the India and Canada signed a memorandum of understanding to promote higher education.
In his speech last week to the World Economic Forum in New Delhi, Mr. Harper said his government places great importance on education links as it tries to deepen relations with India.
Mr. Harper said that 23,000 Indian students conducted research in Canada last year, a one-third increase in one year, and two-and-a-half times greater than in the past three years.
On his trip to China and February, Mr. Harper signed a broad strategic partnership that called for greater education in energy, natural resources, science, agriculture and education.