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Hiroshi Ota, Hitotsubashi University, Japan

A sense of crisis can be the driving force behind internationalisation, says Hiroshi Ota, director of the Global Education Program at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo. He tells The PIE about the critical situation local cities face in Japan, shares his doubts about EMI degrees, and explains why he’s lost interest in ‘conventional’ study abroad programs.

The PIE: You’re an adviser to Hiroshima prefecture, sitting on its Committee on International Students and Internationalisation of Higher Education. What are some of the issues you look at?

"Very often, EMI programs become standalone, island programs with only international students"

HO: One is that the government’s shifting its international education budget from inbound to outbound – more money goes to outbound students rather than inbound students. I’d say this is a ‘Japanese first’ policy.

“The sense of crisis is very important – it pushes people”

But local places – Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Osaka, Kyoto, those local cities – their agenda is different. They are losing population drastically. There are still people coming to Tokyo from provincial cities, they don’t feel that crisis, but in the local cities, their projections are really bad. The sense of crisis is very important – it pushes people. So they’re seriously thinking we have to invite international students, create scholarships and have them study for two, three, four years as a soft landing to Japan, to understand the language, acquire some skills, get a job and then stay in Japan.

Another problem is Japanese people in general still believe that once you open the doors, you’ll have a huge influx of people. But that’s not the case at all.

The PIE: So what can those local cities do to attract international students?

HO: My home city, Fukuoka, is really open, the city, industry, businesses and universities, they’re working together. Hiroshima too. But it’s a problem, you understand, that people from outside think Japan means Tokyo. Or perhaps Japan means Osaka, Kyoto. But Japan means Akita, Ibaraki, too. That’s a problem. I’ve talked to the governor of Hiroshima many times, he really wants to encourage it, but even if he spends the money, the outcome is not good enough. So we are struggling.

The PIE: So let’s talk about internationalisation at Hitotsubashi University. What does your day to day job look like?

HO. I have many hats. I’m the director of the English as a Medium of Instruction program, I’m part of some of our study abroad programs, and I also carry out research into international education and policy.

“People from outside think Japan means Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto. But Japan means Akita, Ibaraki too”

The PIE: What kind of EMI programs do you offer?

HO: We have four departments – economics, business administration, law and political science, sociology – and we all work together under the umbrella of the Hitotsubashi University Global Education Program. There are not only courses in English, but also Japanese language courses for beginners, academic skills in English and TOEFL skills.

The courses in English are part of each faculty’s curriculum. So we have a cross-listing system, where Japanese students take courses in English as a requirement for their curriculum, and exchange students take them too. It’s one classroom, two doors.

However, we don’t have enough Japanese students at the moment because of English proficiency, so now we’re reforming our English education too, working with the British Council. So English proficiency is going up and those students come to our class. It takes time, but it’s working.

The PIE: But you don’t offer full degrees in English?

HO: That’s right. EMI is critical but I’m still against EMI degree programs. Because in Japan, very often EMI programs become standalone, island programs with only international students, and the faculty are non-Japanese and they’re not integrated in the campus. And very often that happens when it’s a degree program.

The PIE: Even though EMI has seen a big pick up throughout Asia?

“For people that didn’t get into the Top Global Universities project, there’s a sense of crisis. But that crisis is an opportunity”

HO: Yes, but my understanding is very often it’s very small islands, not a concerted effort. For example, the Top Global Universities project – Hitotsubashi University isn’t part of that, we don’t get the money. Because if you get money from the government, it’s easy to make another island. You can hire contract workers, temporary teachers, but once the grant is gone, the program is gone. Hitotsubashi started our programs without grants because we have to think of our own way in internationalisation.

Internationalisation is not one model fitting all, but with government initiatives, the government sets the goals. I think the goals must be set by yourself. So in a way, for people that didn’t get into the Top Global Universities project, there’s a sense of crisis. But that crisis is also becoming an opportunity.

The PIE: How many students do you have in total?

HO: 6,200.

The PIE: And how many are international?

HO: About 800. That’s both degree seeking and exchange students.

For the exchange students, we used to require two years’ language training before they came, but now they can just come and take Japanese for beginners. So some students come to Hitotsubashi and study only Japanese language programs, while others come and take only courses in English – like students who are studying economics but with a focus on East Asia. They’re not interested in Japanese, that’s fine. And others who are studying Japanese or East Asian studies, they study both the language and Japanese affairs side by side.

The PIE: Has removing that language requirement made a big difference to your intake of exchange students?

“Many of our exchange partners are scaling back their Japanese language programs”

HO: It’s made a really big difference. The reason why exchange student numbers have been dropping in the last few years was the Japanese language requirement. Many of our exchange partners are scaling back their Japanese language programs, and sometimes they even demolish the entire department to replace it with Chinese. This is the reality!

We give more options and we also encourage the Japanese students to come to the classes. Our exchange students are growing and growing, which means we also have more opportunities to send out Japanese students abroad, and studying in English is good preparation.

The PIE: What opportunities are there for home students to study abroad?

HO: We have exchange programs for a year, a semester, but we also now have internships in Spain for six weeks, a four-week program with intensive English and business immersion at Monash University. Another is going to Singapore Management University, where they study business English for two weeks and then go to Cambodia to practise their skills.

We also have the traditional programs like studying English in the UK. However, I’m not so enthusiastic in those conventional, four-week programs. Because my understanding is you can study English where you are, using the internet, TV. More important is to use English. I’m more interested now in developing programs where students can actually practise: service learning, volunteering, training. I think these lead to increasing employability eventually too.

“I’m not so enthusiastic in those conventional, four-week programs. You can study English where you are”

I tease people on our campus who work in those programs, because I say a four-week language program is like a four-week diet program. You work very hard for four weeks, that’s good. You can feel the effect. But when you return, you rebound. My way is more every day learning English. It’s like exercise, stretching every day so you become more flexible. A four-week language program is symbolic: I studied abroad. But the outcome? I don’t know. I think with language and then business learning, immersion, shadowing, they learn more.

The PIE: Do you take that same approach to employability and applied skills to your incoming international students?

HO: We do, and one way is we’re reaching out to the off campus community, for instance our alumni association. Hitotsubashi’s an old business school, so there are many, many business leaders. I reach out to them and explain the situation, and they say OK, we can work together. They’ve actually created scholarships for international students. And they also create internships. The founder of [e-commerce and internet giant] Rakuten is also a Hitotsubashi graduate, and they’ve created an internship in English in Tokyo.

The PIE: So those alumni links are really important.

HO: Another thing we said we need is ‘lectures in practice’. Macroeconomic theory, students can study at home. So what is something unique we can provide those classes? More practical, application-based courses, taught by lecturers in practice from business, banking and so on. They come to our campuses once a week to teach. That’s unique, they can’t take the same course at home. So alumni play a very important role.

At the Universities of Tokyo and Kyoto, their alumni associations are big. They can’t work together. All the faculties have their own associations. But in our case, as a small institution, all the alumni can work together.

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