The global education stage has become less fixed in recent years regarding what constitutes a “source” country versus a “destination” country for students seeking to study abroad, and Japan is a good example of this. Once regarded as a source of students for big study abroad markets like the UK, the US, Canada and Australia, Japan began to reposition itself in 2008 as a study abroad destination. Among the most visible strategies introduced was the Global 30 program aimed at bringing in 300,000 international students by 2020: 30 Japanese universities were selected to receive intensive support to enable them to achieve specific goals.
Since then, six Japanese universities placed in the top 100 of the 2011/2012 QS World University Rankings (up from four in 2009); but there was also the devastation of 3/11 (2011’s tsunami, earthquake and radiation catastrophe) and the inevitable decrease in foreign visitors this entailed.
Japan appears to be at a turning point. On the one hand, the nation’s big universities are reporting a smaller drop in foreign student numbers than expected for 2012, suggesting that a real rebound to pre-3/11 numbers could be on the horizon. On the other, there is debate about whether enough is being done to attract foreign students and retain them post-study in Japan’s labour force: a Japan Times online article, “Round Table on Attracting Foreign Students,” features a discussion among Japanese education experts on the issues Japan faces in “enticing overseas talent.”
Among the areas the experts cited as problems were:
- Not enough pathways for students from other Asian countries (e.g., Vietnam and China) to come study and work in Japan
- Lack of an official “foreign student support system”
- Inadequate government, industry and private sector collaboration in Japan regarding recruiting foreign students post-study to the workforce
- A perceived lack of confidence among the Japanese in terms of their nation’s strengths (e.g., compared to blockbuster China or post-3/11) and consequent weakness in promoting the country
In response to criticism like this, the Japanese government as well as private higher education institutions are introducing new policies and thinking beyond the “Global 30” with the overall goal of opening up what has been called an “insular” post-secondary environment and to become more globalised.
Several examples include:
- The government has launched the “skilled migration approach,” which promotes the employment of international students in Japan after their studies
- Universities are boosting their proportions of English-taught courses, and are being supported and financially rewarded in this by government
- Private institutions are working more and more with agents to aggressively recruit international students from Asian countries (especially China)
Moreover, the government is also realising that Japan’s branding itself as a study destination country will not be enough to secure a “globalised” reputation for its higher education system; it recently announced that it will grant substantial funding to universities that agree to expand their study abroad programmes. It will offer between ¥120 million and ¥260 million in subsidies each year for five years to 40 universities that commit to the effort to increase the number of Japanese students going overseas (by such means as setting up credit transfer systems with other colleges and adding foreign instructors). According to the ministry, fewer Japanese students have been going abroad to study since marking a record 82,945 in 2004. In 2009, 59,923 Japanese went abroad to study.
The Japan Times quotes Shinichi Yamanaka, a deputy director general at the education ministry, as saying, “I believe we are entering a time to open up (Japanese) universities … to send more Japanese students abroad, universities need to make them more open to the global environment.”
The ministry reports that this year’s scholarship budget for Japanese college-goers studying overseas has been increased from 1.9 billion yen to 3.1 billion yen (approximately US$38 million).
There is much at stake for Japan when it comes to these issues. The country faces a low birthrate and shrinking labour force as well as the always-present reality of China and India’s economic expansion. Well-executed strategies for the globalisation of Japan’s education system and labour market might do much to offset these challenges.