The Japanese government’s latest plan to increase foreign students and expand the number of Japanese students studying abroad, as a landmark initiative to foster internationalisation in higher education, is seen by experts as a bounce back from the last two years of pandemic-related restrictions.
The new target aims to raise the number of foreign students to 400,000 a year by 2033 under a plan put forward by the Council for the Creation of Future Education in the Cabinet Secretariat last month, attended by Prime Minister Kishida Fumio. It includes a target to send 500,000 Japanese students to foreign countries by the same year.
“In order to realise a new form of capitalism, it is important to further promote investment in people,” said Kishida, announcing the initiative on 27 March.
Japan, the world’s third largest economy, aims to shore up the economy through globalisation to overcome a decline in domestic skilled workers and sluggish technology innovation. Wooing foreign investment and developing a multinational labour market are two key goals to support this plan.
According to the Recruit Works Institute, an independent labour market research organisation, Japan will face a shortage of 11 million workers by 2040.
The government’s latest plan goes further than Japan’s previous target to attract 300,000 foreign students a year by 2020, set by then prime minister Shinzo Abe in 2014.
The pre-pandemic years saw the numbers of foreign students steadily increase to reach 310,000 in 2019, according to the Japan Student Services Organization. The number has since declined to around 230,000 in 2022. Tight border controls during the 2020-22 COVID-19 pandemic forced many students to cancel plans to study in Japan, leading to a steep fall in inbound students, particularly impacting on Japanese universities promoting global campuses.
Cautious reception for latest goal
However, experts have expressed caution about the latest thrust by the government to turn the situation around. Japan’s goal of reaching 300,000 foreign students in 2019 included language and vocational students. They arrived on student visas to study Japanese and also worked in manual jobs in sectors facing a labour shortage, such as hotel services, restaurants or factories.
This caused major criticism of Japan’s education internationalisation as being too closely linked to the nation’s economic interests, flying against the mission of higher education that focuses on educating students.
The new target still includes vocational students. However, the Ministry of Justice has said it is reviewing the foreign technical intern programme.
It released a draft proposal this month that recommends abolishing the current system and replacing it with a new points-based system that would favour the most highly skilled, those with more than five years of work experience, and those with higher earnings.
According to the ministry, in particular Japan wants to attract more doctoral and masters students who can “help enhance Japan’s international competitiveness”. The ministry also referred to researchers who can help improve standards of education and research in Japanese universities.
“The policy seems to be slightly changing not just the total number but the quality of students. The government is trying to keep more highly skilled professionals to stay in Japan,” a university administrator said. However, industry continues to pressure the government to help bridge labour shortages.
The Ministry of Justice, which oversees immigration, in February already announced new immigration routes for graduates of the world’s top 100 universities, particularly researchers, engineers and managers, to come to Japan to look for work. But it will compete with a number of other Asian countries, including Singapore and Hong Kong, which have similar schemes.
To help meet the new target, it hopes to streamline the student visa process and also make it easier for foreign students to stay on after graduating from Japanese universities. The ministry has even suggested starting recruitment activities for Japanese universities for foreign students who are currently still in high schools.
Retaining foreign students
Hiroshi Yoneyama, vice president of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, which has a long tradition of supporting a multicultural campus, explained that a challenge for the latest government strategy is retaining international students.
“While our foreign graduates are fluent in Japanese and eager to work in local companies, there is also a trend among them to leave after a few years. This is because of the lack of diversity in Japanese society. There is a reluctance to accept foreigners on their own terms,” he said.
He referred to more Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University graduates now looking for opportunities in other countries. “Japanese salaries tend to be lower in comparison to the West for highly educated youth. Breaking down cultural exclusion in Japan is a major challenge in the goal to develop a diverse society,” he said.
Referring to Japan’s culturally homogenous universities, Takahisa Miyauchi, president of Kanda University of International Studies (KUIS), a private university in Chiba, told University World News: “The new government target is aimed at strengthening innovation in Japanese education that can only be achieved through expanding diversity in universities.”
KUIS focuses on foreign languages and university exchange programmes for Japanese students who make up more than 90% of its 4,100 students. Students spend time in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia on short-term programmes that foster interaction with their foreign counterparts.
“Japanese students need the international exposure to break out of a homogenous culture in their country. Students return to the campus with wider horizons after listening and observing different opinions and lifestyles abroad,” Miyauchi pointed out.
Despite state-of-the art infrastructure and high-quality research, Japanese universities continue to struggle with low international rankings, mostly because of lack of English language instruction and smaller numbers of external academics and students compared to countries like Singapore.
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