Interest in study abroad picking up again in Japan

Even as the country continues its efforts towards its ambitious Global 30 programme – an effort to bring 300,000 international students to Japan by 2020 – there are increasing signs of strengthening demand for study abroad among younger Japanese students and among female students in particular.

A recent survey of Japanese university students indicates a modest uptick in interest in study abroad. The survey, conducted by Recruit Marketing Partners in March and April of this year, gathered responses from more than 3,200 Japanese students.

Nearly 40% of respondents indicated they were unwilling to study abroad, while 33% said they were interested in studying outside of Japan. This represents a modest shift from a previous survey in 2011: the percentage of respondents unwilling to study abroad dropped by nearly 2% from 2011 whereas the percentage interested in study abroad bumped up slightly by 6% in the 2013 survey.

Motivations to study abroad

Concerns over cost and language barriers were the most commonly cited reasons among those not interested in study abroad. Those planning or hoping to study overseas, meanwhile, noted gaining foreign language skills and improved employment prospects as their primary motivations.

It is this last point – the search for better employment opportunities – that may be tipping the balance in terms of study abroad demand in Japan. Beyond the modest increase in interest captured by the Recruit Marketing Partners survey, there are indications of more dramatic shifts in demand among younger students (that is, high school age) and among female students in particular.

A report released last month by the Ministry of Education reveals that slightly more than 1 out of 5 of Japan’s university graduates for 2013 will be without secure employment this year. This amounts to more than 115,000 graduates without jobs for the current year alone.

As the Japan Daily Press reports: “Of the 558,853 graduates from Japanese universities this spring, 67.3% – 375,959 – took full-time positions of some kind of job or were self-employed, while 22,786 took jobs that were not secure.

“Job market conditions have been relatively improving when compared to the 2008 global financial crisis, but the ministry said that ‘the situation remains that some students enter the workforce in the way they don’t really desire.'”

“According to data from ministry, there were 16,850 graduates who took part-time positions. Those without jobs or who didn’t pursue further studies numbered 75,928.”

Particularly given this challenging employment outlook, it is not surprising that we are seeing reports of increasing numbers of Japanese students studying abroad in recent years, whether with the goal of gaining greater access to employment opportunities overseas or as a means of gaining a further advantage in a tough job market at home.

This recent movement reverses a long decline – for the past decade or more – in the number of Japanese students going abroad.

“While the number of overseas students from other major Asian countries like China and India has boomed, there was a precipitous decline in the number of Japanese studying abroad,” reports The New York Times. “According to figures from the government and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 83,000 Japanese studied overseas in 2004, though that number dropped to fewer than 60,000 in 2009.”

Language and K-12 sectors at forefront of trend

Some observers trace the turning point in study abroad trends to autumn 2011.

Speaking to The New York Times, Ryugaku Journal’s Executive Vice President Yukari Kato said, “The government was beginning to realise they must globalise their human talent, and companies like Rakuten [a major online retailer] and Uniqlo [a fashion chain] were introducing in-house English language policies.”

“Two trends stand out,” reports The New York Times. “One is that university students, eager to bolster their employability, are choosing short-term language programmes in English-speaking countries like Australia and Canada. Another is the growing number of high school students looking to go overseas.”

“Ryugaku Journal says the number of college students it arranged to send overseas rose 12% to 3,500 in 2012, while the number of high school students grew 94%.” Earlier this month, ICEF Monitor reported on a similar trend in China, with new evidence showing that the average age of students headed overseas is declining significantly.

“Tatsu Hoshino, an independent study abroad counselor, said that in Japan, there were signs everywhere that more young Japanese were heading overseas – except in data from the Ministry of Education, which are released a few years after the fact.”

In particular, Canada has gained ground as a study destination for Japanese students in recent years.

Those students coming for shorter-term language programmes (e.g., of six months or less) do not require student visas for Canada and therefore, are often not well counted in government statistics. Even so, the Canadian government reports a nearly 10% increase in visas issued to Japanese students from 2010 to 2011 (3,546 visas for 2011 as compared to 3,238 in 2010).

This reflects students visiting the country for longer-term language studies but also a strengthening demand for university degrees.

There are indications of growing demand among Japanese students for undergraduate studies abroad and the Japanese Ministry of Education notes as well that more than 72,000 of this year’s 559,000 university graduates in Japan will go on to graduate school.

Similarly, while the 18,668 Japanese students in the US in 2012 was a long way from the peak of 47,000 Japanese students in US in the late 1990s, they represented again a 10% increase over the 16,811 Japanese students issued visas by the US in 2011.

Finally, it appears as well that women are driving a good measure of this resurgent demand in the Japanese market.

“Experts say there is a clear gender gap among Japanese students looking to go overseas,” adds The New York Times. “Overwhelmingly, it is female students who show interest,” said Kageaki Kajiwara, dean of the School of Asia 21 at Kokushikan University in Tokyo. “Unfortunately, there is a disparity in career opportunities available in this male-dominated society, and opportunities might be greater overseas for Japanese women.”

This observation is borne out as well by the recent Recruit Marketing Partners survey, which also found that there were more females willing to study abroad than males.

While it is in many respects a mature market for international education, Japan nevertheless continues to surprise and evolve, and it will be fascinating now to see if the gains of the last couple of years will be reflected in longer-term trends toward increased student mobility going forward.

Government strategies to internationalise higher ed

In the meantime, the internationalisation of Japanese education clearly remains a major priority for the country and the government led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

In June of this year, the government released its so-called “Abeducation” strategy – a broad policy statement that aims to further the globalisation of the country’s higher education system.

Among other items, Abeducation reinforces the government’s commitment to boosting the position of Japanese universities in global rankings as well as to improving university governance, expanding online study programmes, and increasing student mobility.

Japan has made only modest progress towards its goal of hosting 300,000 international students by 2020: Ministry of Education statistics show that the number of international students rose from 124,000 in 2008 (the year the Global 30 programme and the related 300,000 student goal were announced) to 137,750 by 2012.

Nevertheless, a broad commitment to the goal remains.

Japanese institutions, notably the University of Tokyo, are going so far as to modify their annual calendars in order to better accommodate international students. And, as reported by University World News:

“For the first time last year, the University of Tokyo started two undergraduate programmes geared towards international students and taught in English, with more expected to follow.

The university established a strategic partnership with Princeton University in the US in February, which has been described officially as ‘ground-breaking’ for ushering in collaborative research and teaching, as well as faculty and student exchange.”

Abeducation is also concerned with increasing outbound student mobility, and Japan’s Minister of Education Hakubun Shimomura has promised expanded financial support for students in an effort to double the number of Japanese students currently studying overseas.

Despite all of the structural, economic and demographic challenges facing Japan, there are clearly important market shifts afoot that are driving increased demand for study abroad. These represent the beginnings of a hopeful trend that appears poised to build further, particularly if the government follows through on its commitment for improved support for Japanese students going overseas to study.



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