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Michiko Suzuki, JASSO, Japan

Student inertia, a language barrier and strengthened higher education systems across ASEAN countries are just some of the hurdles standing in the way of Japan’s ambitious targets for both inbound and outbound student mobility. Michiko Suzuki, executive director of student exchange at the Japan Student Services Organisation, considers how the country can rise to the challenge.

The PIE: What does JASSO do?

"For students who study Japanese for one or two years before a degree, that would make six years of investment. In Australia, you’re at the beginning of a PhD within six years"

MS: JASSO is supported by the Japanese Ministry of Education, MEXT, and we support higher education institutions by giving scholarships or giving opportunities to recruit international students or projects to enhance student mobility in inbound and outbound at the same time.

In Japan we also run international student dormitories. The biggest one is in Tokyo and we have 800 rooms and about 1,000 residents from more than 80 countries living in this complex. So we have extensive projects for the enhancement of the student mobility.

The PIE: And is that a popular option for students? Staying in those dormitories?

MS: Yes, because it’s cheap, and you can meet students from other universities from other countries.

The PIE: And you oversee all of these projects?

“We focus on short programmes because it will will raise the motivation of the students to think about going abroad for longer”

MS: That’s right. I’m the executive director of the student exchange department, so from the management of housing to the provision of scholarship, I’m in charge of all these projects.

The PIE: How many scholarships do you provide a year?

MS: For degree seekers we provide about 8,000 scholarships, for exchange students we have 23,000 outbound scholarships and 6,000 inbound scholarships – that’s from eight days to 12 months. For those taking degrees from the graduate schools abroad we have about 270.

The PIE: Japanese students tend to go overseas for short periods of time – how can you encourage them to study abroad for longer?

MS: Yes, I think the students prefer to go abroad for a short time; but when you go for just two weeks or one month, all the students would like to go again for a longer time. So it’s like an appetiser programme to the main course. So we focus on the short programmes also because it will enhance and change the mentality of the students and it will raise the motivation of the students to think about going abroad [for longer].

The PIE: So it encourages them to take the next step?

MS: Yes. You cannot send them for a long period of time, if it’s the first time the students are going abroad, you can just send them for a shorter period and I think they will definitely return for a longer period.

The PIE: Prime Minister Abe has ambitious targets for inbound and outbound mobility – do you think it will be a challenge to meet them?

MS: The target is to have 300,000 inbound and 200,000 outbound by the year 2020 when we have the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympic Games.

“We used to receive a lot of students from China, Korea and Taiwan but their higher education is getting better and better so they don’t have to send their students to Japan”

For inbound it’s quite difficult. As of May last year, we had 200,000, so we need to add 100,000 more in the next four or five years.

For the exchange students, or the outbound students, we use the data from OECD or UNESCO and it’s about 60,000 – but we also have shorter programmes or university summer programmes, and if you add these numbers it will be 200,000.

So outbound is okay, but inbound is difficult because we used to receive a lot of students from China, Korea and Taiwan but their higher education is getting better and better so they don’t have to send their students to Japan to study undergraduate programmes. We encourage them to come for exchange or through the graduate schools. So the situation and environment is changing. All the ASEAN countries are thinking about improving their higher education systems. And if the education systems in ASEAN countries are getting better, they don’t need to send their students to study in Japan for undergraduate degree programmes

The PIE: So what do Japanese institutions need to do to entice more international students to come from overseas to study?

MS: Maybe we need to have shorter programmes or teach the courses in English, because most of the courses in Japan are still taught in Japanese.

In Australia, they have a three-year bachelor’s but in Japan it is four years like in America. And then most of the students who study Japanese [first] for one or two years, that would make six years of investment. Whereas if you go to Australia, you’re at the beginning of a PhD programme within six years.

“We have to sell the good points of Japanese higher education. We have a lot of Nobel Prize winners in physics and chemistry, so science and engineering is a very strong field”

We also have to sell the good points of Japanese higher education. We have a lot of Nobel Prize winners in physics and chemistry, so science and engineering is a very strong field in Japanese higher education and research. And we still have the uniqueness of Japanese culture.

The PIE: What would encourage more Japanese students to study abroad?

MS: Usually the students are very comfortable living in Japan, so I think it’s necessary for universities and institutions to prepare some kind of [targeted] programme because it is very difficult to apply to foreign institutions by themselves. So maybe the universities should make a programme according to their vision of how to nurture the students. It’s the universities’ responsibilities to have a variety of programmes.

The PIE: What’s different about the Tobitate scholarships compared with other scholarship programmes?

MS: Tobitate is completely funded by donations from the private sector. The target is to send 1,000 university students every year and 300 high school students, but this year we are sending 500. We just closed the application for high school students and we received 1,750 applications for 500 places, so it’s very competitive. For university students we have a document screening, then an interview, presentation and group discussion. Then we have a pre-departure orientation for two or three days and after they return home we have a post-arrival orientation as well.

“We received 1,750 scholarship applications for 500 places, so it’s very competitive”

Because money comes from the companies, we collaborate with them to provide internship opportunities or information about employment, so it’s a government, JASSO and business collaboration programme and it’s been very, very successful. All our executives, like the president of JASSO, have been visiting the company presidents to recognise the importance and value of study abroad – the companies will spend the money for the employees’ children unless they recognise the value of study abroad, they would not donate for us. So we have been having a campaign to raise awareness knowing that young kids should be sent abroad.

The PIE: How do you promote the scholarships?

MS: We have a lot of videos, YouTube, and posters at stations, convenience stores and post offices. We receive this kind of in-kind contribution, not money, from these corporations. And also for the project, we have employees seconded to this programme so we work together with the business people, but the universities could second us employees. So it’s an ‘all Japan’ activity.

The PIE: Do you find that a lot of international students know about Tokyo and Kyoto but they don’t know about a lot of other cities, and it’s hard to get them to go to other destinations?

MS: I think it’s the same with any country. Like if you go to Australia, you’d like to go to Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane. If you go to the United Kingdom, you prefer London, because you know London, but you don’t know other cities. It’s always the same for the young generation – more fun, more enthusiasm, energetic cities.

So a lot of students prefer to live in Tokyo or Osaka, Nagoya because there are many universities, many prestigious universities, and more information than in other local cities. But we have local universities interested in receiving students so that’s why we organise Study in Japan pavilions at international events.

“When we have a Study in Japan fair in Taiwan, we have Hokkaido University with a queue of students”

The PIE: Are you trying to promote other regions too?

MS: Yes – we have a tourist promotion to receive a lot of Taiwanese tourists to Hokkaido, it’s very popular. So when we have a Study in Japan fair in Taiwan, we have Hokkaido University with a queue of students. It’s sometimes connected to the tourist promotion because the city should be known to the young students. And a lot of prefectures join the tourist expo in Thailand or France, so the young students know the place.

The PIE: Would you like to see more students going to smaller cities?

MS: Of course! Because when students go to the local cities, they really have a good time. At first they say that they don’t know this place, and also there are exchange programmes between institutions so you hear from former exchange students how beautiful that city is or how you could be taken care of.

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