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Has the sun set on internationalisation in Japan?

Japan’s Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology (MEXT) recently invited 10 Malaysian university students to visit the country, to conduct a study and report back on reparations following last year’s earthquake and nuclear crisis – a move to build confidence and bring tourists back to the island.

International students in the Global 30 programme at Tsukuba University

The government has realised that the inflow and outflow of students will be vital to the country's economic survival

It reflected the government’s determination to continue pushing its traditionally inward-looking population to engage with the wider world, just 15 months after one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the country’s history. The involvement of students was also pertinent, given the government has realised that the inflow and outflow of students will be vital to the country’s economic survival.

“Japan is trying to develop the quality and improve the international competitiveness of its education system,” says head of Research and Advisory Services at World Education Services, Dr Rahul Choudaha.

“It’s less driven by educational forces than economic and demographic concerns though. The economy is stagnant, so they think: Is there a way to upstart and improve momentum? And then the question is whether their talent can help achieve that and fill the demographic gap.”

And the government’s got its work cut out. The latest QS rankings show seven Japanese universities rank in the top 20 out of 300 in the region but in terms of numbers, other markets are leaving it behind – notably China which now welcomes 233,000 international students to its universities to Japan’s 133,000.

Similarly, Japan’s student output is waning in comparison to other powerhouses in the region. Japan, once the leading source for international students at US universities, has seen decline over the past 10 years.

In 2011 numbers were down by 14% to 21,290 students according to the Open Doors Report. Meanwhile China surged with a 23% increase, making it the leading nationality with 157, 558 students. South Korea came third with 73,351 students behind India’s 103,895.

China now welcomes 233,000 international students to its universities to Japan’s 133,000

The report credits the effects of a “rapidly ageing Japanese population, the global economy and the recruiting cycle of Japanese companies” for the fall in Japanese outbound mobility.

Global 30 flop

The most recent and largest fiscal commitment to internationalisation of Japanese education came in 2008, with the launch of the Global 30 programme. The programme was intended to use US$38 million to sponsor courses taught in English for international students at 30 universities in the country. The goal was to boost the number of international students in Japan to 300,000 by 2020.

However, funding cuts have resulted in just 13 universities participating and the latest figures show just 21,429 international students are studying in English at the participating universities.

International students at Tsukuba University

Dr Louis Irving, G30 assistant professor of biology at  Tsukuba University, says the rigorous entrance requirements prohibited some universities from receiving support through Global 30. He also mentions that adapting to a non-Japanese system in order to accommodate international students is challenging.

The programme was intended to use US$38 million to sponsor courses taught in English

“The needs of international students are significantly different from their Japanese counterparts,” he said. “Almost every aspect of the university has to be re-examined in light of the new demands which they are expected to fulfil.”

Associate director for admissions at Nagoya University, Harriet Ng, says that Nagoya hopes to expand its offering to international students as Global 30 progresses.

“Funding from the government is good but the university wanted to centralise the students we brought in so it is very selective,” she said. “I think the potential students are much bigger than the intake, so I’m hoping in the future we can accept students interested in say the humanities too.” [more>>]

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