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How do university leaders view internationalisation?

Recent political developments have problematised the international activities that are increasingly central to the functioning of higher education systems and institutions.

Despite not having presented his strategy for higher education, Donald Trump’s administration in the United States has produced a great deal of uncertainty within US colleges and universities, particularly in relation to internationalisation. Similarly, it is anticipated that the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union will have consequences for the international stature and activities of universities in both the UK and continental Europe.

What is the impact of this changing international context in countries like Japan? How do their university leaders view internationalisation and are their internationalisation strategies similarly threatened?

Internationalisation survey

The Research Institute for Higher Education at Japan’s Hiroshima University implemented a national survey of 744 university leaders in charge of international activities to discover their views.

It found that more than half of Japanese universities (58.6%) believe that internationalisation is an important agenda at an institutional level. Frequently cited goals of internationalisation include ‘improving the quality and level of research’ (34.3%), ‘enhancing university prestige and reputation’ (31.4%) and ‘improving staff quality’ (30.8%).

However, sectoral stratification is clearly evident. Leaders of national universities are notably more likely (93%) than their local public (43.4%) or private (43.1%) counterparts to identify internationalisation as an important agenda. And while the primary goal of both national and local public sectors is to improve the quality of research (80.6 % and 41.7% respectively), private universities primarily hope to enhance their prestige and reputation (21.4%).

Inbound and outbound mobility

When asked to identify important practices of internationalisation, the top response from all respondents emphasised outbound student mobility (94.8%), followed by ‘strengthening students’ English proficiency’ (89%), ‘hiring international staff and researchers’ (81.1%), ‘dispatching academic and administrative staff abroad for research and training’ (79.7%) and ‘accepting international students’ (79.7%).

National universities tend to engage in a broad range of these activities, while private universities, in contrast, focus on the exchange of students and staff with foreign partners, particularly attracting international students to their campuses.

Regarding the benefits of internationalisation, the leaders suggest that it provides both students (95.9%) and staff (90.7%) with international perspectives and ‘promotes international collaboration and partnership’ (89.5%), a benefit prioritised by national universities in particular.

As for the risks of internationalisation, leaders fear the ‘widening gap between universities’ (39.2%) and increasing regional variation (26.9%), and ‘overemphasising the acceptance of international students’ (29.1%). Local public universities worry particularly about ‘overuse of English as teaching language’ (29.2%), whereas private universities fear internationalisation at the expense of staff and students’ other activities (30.2%).

When questioned about the international status of Japan’s universities, over half of respondents (54.1%) claim that the research productivity of Japan’s universities has already reached international standards, but local public universities are more reluctant to make such an assertion (41.7%). Similarly, less than half of respondents believe that educational activities and social services have achieved international standards.

International and sectoral comparisons

The survey reveals an internal acknowledgement among university leaders that the internationalisation of Japan’s universities is ongoing.

University leaders see its value, emphasising that internationalisation is beneficial for broadening the international perspectives of students and staff and enhancing international partnerships with foreign universities.

Furthermore, in contrast to countries such as Australia, the UK and the US, the internationalisation of Japan’s universities is not primarily motivated by the market, but exhibits strong non-commercial characteristics. This is especially apparent in the case of national universities.

In addition, this research shows significant sectoral variation in attitudes and approaches to internationalisation.

In general, national universities have achieved a higher level of internationalisation relative to local public or private universities, especially in enhancing the quality of their academic work and research productivity. In contrast, private universities seem to prioritise broader educational activities and attracting international students for commercial purposes.

Sectoral stratification and internationalisation

These findings suggest that the functional stratification of the three sectors of universities in Japan determines the main goals, values, activities and outcomes of their internationalisation strategy. Four factors explain this.

Firstly, except for a short period of time from the early 1930s to the end of the World War II, since the late 19th century the educational ideas, standards and practices of Germany, France, the UK and the US have been incorporated into Japanese university systems. In a major sense, internationalisation has played a vital role in the emergence and development of Japan’s universities.

Secondly, although a large number of private universities need to recruit sufficient numbers of fee-paying international students to maintain their operations, since 1973 the central government has begun to provide public financial support to all private universities. For example, even as of 2010, public expenditure constituted more than 10% of the total revenues of private universities.

Thirdly, national universities have been expected to facilitate the advancement of basic and applied scientific research, some of which is large scale. A huge number of national universities remain more prestigious and are the centres of most graduate work at the PhD level. By contrast, almost all private universities provide only vocational and practical educational programmes.

Finally, increased academic competition worldwide has made Japan’s universities realise the need to enhance their international competitiveness through internationalisation, particularly of teaching and research activities.

In conclusion, it appears that the international context signified by the Trump administration and Brexit has exerted little influence on the appetite in Japanese universities for internationalisation. Nor have Japanese universities considerably slowed their pace of internationalisation. Internationalisation is still highly valued despite these new circumstances.

Professor Futao Huang and Professor Tsukasa Daizen are based at the Research Institute for Higher Education at Hiroshima University, Japan.
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