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A model of how to lure high-quality foreign students

Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, or APU, located in Beppu, a quiet hot spring resort town in southern Kyushu, took the plunge to establish a global campus in 2000 as an initiative by Ritsumeikan University, a leading private university in Kyoto.

Perched on top of a hill, APU has 6,000 students, half from overseas – a ratio way above the average of 10% foreign students in Japanese universities.

“We have always been close to the 50% mark, but the 2016 fall semester is the first time that the number of international students has exceeded 50%,” says APU Vice-president and Executive Dean Kenji Yokoyama.

He notes almost all the foreign students are on four-year undergraduate degree programmes, rather than short courses or exchanges.

APU’s diversity – students come from around 90 countries – and high-achieving student body are among its best selling points. Impressively, Some 90% of its foreign graduates find employment in Japanese companies, as well as overseas. According to surveys by the Japan Student Services Organization, or JASSO, only 34.5% of the 11, 556 foreign graduates of Japanese universities in fiscal 2014 found jobs.

The university was launched with investment led by the Keidanren, Japan’s business federation made up of its biggest and most important companies, which have been keen to support the internationalisation of the country’s workforce.

“Our foreign students are snapped up by local companies because they are fluent in Japanese and are familiar with the culture. They also speak other languages and have a wide international network. On the other hand, APU has become attractive to Japanese youth because of its diversity,” said Kenji.

Push to internationalise

Japan’s push to internationalise its universities is based on expanding English language programmes and increasing overseas students, two core pillars supported by government subsidies, earmarked mostly for top higher education institutions.

The government is financing the globalisation of 37 universities for a decade under the Super Global Universities initiative relaunched in 2014, following an earlier decade of funding. Ritsumeikan and APU are listed among the 37.

The total budget for fiscal 2017 starting in April is JPY6.3 billion (US$55 million). This also finances government scholarships for foreign graduate students.

To provide generous incentives to study in Japan, successful students will have tuition fees reduced, with top students extended a 100% rebate.

The grand plan has had a bumpy ride, however. An example of the hurdles facing the globalisation target is that Japan, an economic and technology leader in Asia, reports only 152,000 foreign students currently studying at four-year colleges – a figure that is just half the official target of 300,000 by 2020.

“While universities [believe] English language courses [will] make their campuses more global, the programmes struggle because English is not necessarily the best language of instruction for Asian students who mark the majority of overseas students studying in Japanese universities,” explained Professor Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University, Tokyo.

APU foreign students

At APU the largest groups of foreign students are from South Korea and Vietnam, each representing 17% of the student body. Chinese students are 15.5% of APU’s foreign students, and Indonesians 12%.

Foreign students apply on the basis of English or Japanese as the main language of study and must have sufficient fluency to follow lectures and active discussions in either of the two. “Once enrolled they are required to study their non-basis language, either English or Japanese,” says Kenji Ito, at the Office of the President. Most foreign students emerge trilingual.

“Our approach to higher education globalisation does not focus on expanding numbers but rather to accept quality students from overseas. We also offer internationally accredited courses to be able to meet the stiff competition with counterparts abroad for foreign applicants,” he says.

Attracting high achievers from overseas is the key to building a successful globalisation programme, he adds.

“Good students coming to APU is the result of active networking with overseas high schools and other institutions. Our selection process is also heavily focused on interviews in contrast to the norm in Japan which is to wait for applications [to come to them],” he says. The diverse student body is what makes it stand out from other universities offering English-language programmes.

“Japan's university globalisation programme is a learning process for its stakeholders. English language proficiency apart, internationalisation is about learning from each other, a process that is crucial in a country moving from homogeneity to diversity,” observed Professor Robert Aspinall, who helped launch the Center for Global Education at Doshisha University in Kyoto.

APU continues to receive public grants but revenue is mostly from tuition fees, which generate 70% of the university budget. Scholarships, in the form of reduced tuition fees, are also offered to four-year students.

Sri Lankan graduate Virendra Jayatilake says: “A major attraction when I applied to APU was the prospect of reduced tuition [fees]. In the end APU has opened a door for me in Japan.” In April he will embark on a career at Yoshimoto Kogyo Company, a leading Japanese entertainment company.

There are signs that international students are changing their focus in choosing Japan. “Historically, international students have been more interested in a business degree from our College of International Management,” said Vice-president Kenji. “However, recently we have seen growing interest in our College of Asia Pacific Studies, which includes subjects such as environment and development, international relations, and peace studies.”

This article was altered on 2 February to reflect that APU is listed under the 37 universities in the government's Super Global initiative.

Related Links
Asia is Japan’s internationalisation blindspot
Can Japanese universities really become Super Global?
Geopolitical tensions versus boosting foreign student numbers
Boosting foreign student numbers to 300,000
Foreign students attracted to a highly educated nation
Abeducation – A new push for higher education internationalisation
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