JAPAN: Where to after the earthquake?

The devastating 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami on 11 March 2011 plunged Japan into chaos. It claimed the lives of 15,000 citizens, with an additional 10,000 still missing and 120,000 in evacuation centres as their homes were lost or destroyed.

The estimated economic loss is said to be between US$200 billion and US$300 billion and will have a serious impact on the developing northeast region of Japan. Countless aftershocks, plus fears associated with further potentially catastrophic nuclear radiation leaks from the Fukushima nuclear plant, added worry and distress for people in the affected area.

The earthquake also inflicted immense damage on higher education in Japan, especially in the area of internationalisation.

Supported by the 'Plan for 300,000 International Students by 2020', the higher education sector was in the process of internationalising.

The first project of the plan was Global 30, in which the government invested 4.1 billion yen (US$52 million) to enable 13 core universities to lead the internationalisation of higher education.

Prior to Global 30, another five-year project, the Career Development Programme for Foreign Students in Japan, had commenced and provided full scholarships, comprehensive business training, internships and placement opportunities for international students.

Japan's universities might have been behind their rapidly internationalising counterparts in neighbouring countries, but Japan was catching up step-by-step until 11 March this year.

The immediate impact of the earthquake was a decrease in the number of current and prospective international students.

At Tohoku University, the largest higher education institution in the country's northeast region, 34 degree-seeking students withdrew after the earthquake. Forty-four out of 81 undergraduate exchange students discontinued their studies, 33 out of 43 rescheduled to start again in April, and one-third of the autumn-semester applicants cancelled their study-abroad plans at the university.

The loss of students is only about 10% of the university's total international student population. Yet the numbers are likely to continue to fall, as the earthquake incident has even affected international student enrolment at universities as far as Kyoto, located 350 miles south of the Fukushima nuclear plant.

The continued decrease in international student numbers is a serious challenge for the Global 30 project and Tohoku University, which planned to have 3,000 international students at the university by 2015.

But ironically, the earthquake is also an opportunity for Japan to evaluate its level of internationalisation.

For example, during the months after the earthquake a series of events raised questions around Tohoku University's internationalisation achievements.

Risk management standards could have been higher. The Tohoku region had been expecting a large earthquake for more than 10 years; and with a large number of international students from non-earthquake countries, the university should have included earthquake information during student orientation or handed out an information booklet prepared by local government.

Furthermore, after students had gathered as instructed at the designated evacuation area on campus, the university dismissed them without clear instructions on what to do next. International students were left to find their own way to evacuation centres.

Also, the university should have taken a more active role in collecting accurate information and sending out timely messages to international students.

The students, alone in unfamiliar evacuation centres without updates on the earthquake and the nuclear-plant accident, were susceptible to inaccurate information. And their worried parents and friends, whose interpretations of the incidents were largely influenced by the media in their countries, urged the students to leave Japan immediately.

In addition, chain emails had been encouraging students to leave. One email, claiming to be from the Chinese government, instructed Chinese students to gather at the Niigata Airport, 200 miles from Sendai where Tohoku University is situated, to catch a government-chartered flight.

More than 100 students rushed to the airport, many standing in long lines to buy bus tickets. Some even took a taxi in a group and shared the US$800 fare. Yet no such flight existed. Those who could not afford full-fare tickets checked themselves into an evacuation centre near the airport until representatives of the Chinese Consulate came to their rescue.

International students rushed from Japan with unfounded fears. This exodus could have been prevented had the university moved immediately to provide international students with information to assist sound decision-making.

The university was not fully prepared for this mega earthquake. But it quickly overcame this mistake.

The international office modified an online application system for exchange students to create a safety confirmation webpage, where international students could report their safety and status, and even plan for their studies.

At Tohoku University, as of 28 March, it was known that close to 1,000 students - two-third of the international students - had been safely evacuated. By 25 April, 86% reported their willingness to return for the start of the new academic year.

The Japanese government also came to provide support, by offering free airline tickets for government-sponsored scholarship students who had gone home, to return to Japan, and scholarships for self-funded international students at universities located in affected areas.

Partner institutions all over the globe have extended their support by increasing their quotas and accepting students from Japan to their exchange programmes, raising money for the victims, or sending the country encouraging messages. The alumni have sent donations so that damaged buildings may be repaired.

The earthquake has provided us with an opportunity to find strength in ourselves to recuperate. And we discovered the helping hands of our friends from all over the world.

The internationalisation of Japanese universities might have been set back for some years by this disaster. But we should not be deterred. We should face up to the challenges and change the crisis into an opportunity.

By reviewing and re-evaluating Japan as a destination for quality higher education, we can identify our advantages as well as our shortcomings - including in the aftermath of the earthquake - and rebuild our strategy from the ground up, in order to meet the increasing levels of competition in higher education.

But these strategies should not be developed independently by institutions. There are many stakeholders we can involve - such as policy-makers, industry, local communities, non-profit organisations and even members of the international community.

Constructing a network or creating a consortium, where ideas and insights can be shared, will lead to building better strategies. Universities in the affected area, including Tohoku University, can act as liaison points for these diverse stakeholders. This is the first step towards restoration and a new era of internationalisation.

* Kazuko Suematsu is with the division of international education and exchange in the Graduate School of Economics and Management at Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan.

* This is an edited version of Kazuko Suematsu's article, "Where is Japan Heading After the Earthquake?", in the current edition of International Higher Education, the publication of the Boston College Center for International Higher Education.