JAPAN: University internationalisation scaled back

The future of Japan's Global 30 project, established by the government just last year to internationalise universities, is in doubt as it is running out of money.

The Education Ministry reported that the budget for universities wanting to be part of the Global 30 project from April 2011, the next fiscal year, would not be forthcoming. If and when funding comes available, it will only support the 13 universities already selected.

"With overall budget cuts, the Global 30 target will remain conservative despite the importance of the programme," said Chizu Ogasawara of the ministry's higher learning department.

Japanese universities are struggling with a declining student population and financial constraints stemming from low birth rates and a prolonged economic recession.

The US$37 million Global 30 project was launched in April 2009 to revitalise the university sector.

It was to provide extra funding for universities that created new curricula taught in English, including graduate programmes and research studies to attract international students. The budget for 2010 was reduced to US$30 million.

Ogasawara said the programme had seen the enrollment of 450 international students and 85 new courses in bio-engineering, design, economic studies and liberal arts.

Global 30 set a target to recruit 50,000 undergraduate students by the end of the 2020 fiscal year. While the prospects of achieving such targets remain shaky a year later, there are calls to take bold steps to improve Japan's latest official move to gather top-class international talent to its universities.

The University of Tokyo, Japan's most prestigious higher learning institution and one of the 13 selected for internationalisation, offers five-year graduate level courses under Global 30 in architecture and urban design, bio-engineering and international technology management.

Eleven international students are currently enrolled and a spokesperson said the courses will be completed irrespective of new government funds.

Professor Masayuki Kobayashi, at the university's Centre for Research and Development for Higher Education, explained that the goals of internationalisation were aimed at "not only introducing curricula in English to increase and support students from foreign countries but to also encourage more Japanese counterparts to study abroad".

The latter aspiration however is looking particularly bleak. Japanese students studying in US universities and colleges dropped by 15% in the 2009-10 academic year to 24,800, with Japan falling to sixth place as a sending country behind China, India and South Korea.

Kobayashi said a key reason was growing anxiety over the tight employment market in Japan once students return.

Fewer than 60% of university graduates managed to secure jobs after graduation in spring 2011, an all-time low figure that also affects students studying abroad. A government survey released this month showed that the employment rate of science and engineering graduates dropped 10.2% this year - well below the 3.8% decline reported for the liberal arts.

Professor Koichi Ishiyama, who teaches international finance at Toin University based in Yokohama, points to the depressing job scenario "as a huge disadvantage especially as Japanese graduates from foreign universities were beginning to be viewed as a plus to local companies scrambling to meet global competition".

Plans have been unveiled by other universities to launch new curricula on modern Japanese culture focusing on animation and video games, where Japan's technology has taken the lead.

In August, the Education Ministry held the Global 30 University-Business Joint Forum that brought together officials, corporations and universities to discuss such issues as employment of foreign students enrolled in new Global 30 programmes of study.

A survey conducted in 2007 by the private Japan Students Service Organisation indicated that over 61% of foreign students were keen to be employed in Japan but success rates were less than half that. The hitch, according to the survey, was their lack of high Japanese language skills.

International students in Japan often have to rely on volunteers to help them master the language. Companies with international business sectors are willing to recruit foreign graduates but many others prefer Japanese, a stance that academic experts hope will become more flexible if Japan is to survive against competition from other countries including its fast-developing close neighbours South Korea and China.

China embarked on a plan in 2008 to increase its international researchers with tax incentives and allowances, unlike Japan where only 3% of the research staff is comprised of foreigners.

"There is a vital need to build a dynamic international university system but lack of funds and social constraints are huge problems," said the University of Tokyo's Masayuki Kobayashi.