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Japan looks to ASEAN markets for enrolment growth

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Japan aims to build its international enrolment from 190,000 currently to 300,000 by 2020
  • Recent growth has largely been driven by Southeast Asian markets, notably Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia
  • The Japanese government has targeted funding to expand linkages between Japanese universities and those in ASEAN countries
  • The resulting programmes have led to a range of English-taught semester-abroad exchanges for both Japanese and ASEAN students, most of which will operate through 2017 and 2018

With a combined population of 600 million people and a middle class that is projected to exceed 100 million people by 2020, the ten states of The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are emerging as one of the world’s significant trading blocks. It comes as no surprise then that Southeast Asian markets have been important growth drivers for international enrolments in leading study destinations around the world, and for regional destinations as well.

Japan, for example, saw a nearly 10% increase in its foreign enrolment in 2014. International student numbers climbed to just over 184,000 that year, marking the first growth recorded in the country’s international student numbers since 2011.

And it happens that much of the increase can be traced back to ASEAN markets. In one particularly notable case, the number of Vietnamese students in Japan nearly doubled year-over-year to reach 26,439 in 2014. But other regional markets also showed strong growth that year. Statistics from the Japan Student Services Organisation (JASSO) indicate significant gains from a number of sending markets in the region, including a 13% increase in Thai students and 14% growth in Indonesian enrolment (Japan’s sixth and seventh-largest sending markets respectively). Myanmar, Japan’s tenth-ranked sending market, also grew by 21% in 2014, the Philippines by 12%, and Singapore 22%.

There are a number of factors at play here. Japan is actively seeking new markets in the region, and Japanese companies have been working hard to expand their footprint in ASEAN economies. But Japanese universities have been building stronger ties as well, and often with the active support of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT).

Building university links

The Japanese government has a long-established goal to host 300,000 international students by 2020 – in effect, to expand its current enrolment base by another 100,000 students within the next five years. Partly with this goal in mind, Japanese universities have been expanding their recruitment activities in ASEAN for some years. The Fukui University of Technology was an early mover in this respect, opening its first ASEAN office in Bangkok in 2013.

In the years since, MEXT has provided targeted funding – on the order of tens of millions of yen per year – to support selected universities in their efforts to build stronger links in ASEAN markets. The initiative is tied to ASEAN International Mobility for Students (AIMS) programme, making Japan one of the first non-ASEAN states to join AIMS, and commits MEXT to a five-year funding period from 2013 through 2018.

The Japan Times reports that the participating Japanese institutions are the University of Tsukuba, Hiroshima University, Sophia University, Waseda University, Ritsumeikan University, a consortium of Hokkaido University, the University of Tokyo and Rakuno Gakuen University, and another consortium of the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, Ibaraki University and Tokyo Metropolitan University. Japan’s AIMS projects address a range of academic areas – including tourism, business, and engineering – and connect the Japanese institutions to partners and students in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Brunei.

Under the programme, students spend a semester at a participating university (both ASEAN students in Japan, and Japanese students at a partner institution in Southeast Asia). Instruction is given in English (except for dedicated language classes, Japanese instruction for ASEAN students, for example) and academic credits earned abroad are often transferable between participating universities.

The MEXT-AIMS programmes are also highly structured to target specific disciplines and partner universities in both Japan and Southeast Asia.

The Hokkaido-Tokyo-Rakuno Gakuen consortium, for example, operates a programme in cooperation with two Thai universities: Kasetsart University and Chulalongkorn University. The programme is called “Collaboration on Veterinary Education Between Japan and Thailand for the Sound Development of Asian Countries” (or CVE for short).

CVE trains vets, as well as veterinary researchers and educators, with “the ultimate goal of [building] a base for veterinarians and veterinary researchers specialising in quarantine, public health, and animal medical care in Asian countries.” It provides for bilateral exchange between Japan and Thailand with students from each country studying in their counterpart universities for one semester.

The University of Tsukuba, meanwhile, operates a more broadly oriented AIMS programme called “Trans-ASEAN Global Agenda Education Programme.” Funded through 2017, the programme is partnered with nearly 20 universities in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines. It focuses on the UN’s Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals – particularly as they relate to hunger, poverty reduction, and environmental issues – and centres around studies in food science, agriculture, international business, language, and tourism.

Given the modest growth in enrolment recorded over the past five years, it may well be that Japan’s goal to host 300,000 international students by 2020 is now slipping out of reach. But recent gains in enrolment from Southeast Asia are certainly a bright spot in this respect and we might expect to see a continued or even expanded recruitment effort in Southeast Asia on the part of Japanese universities in the years ahead.

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