Alarm at decline in numbers opting to study abroad

When Keiko Ozawa (18) said she wanted to study abroad, she was strongly discouraged by family and friends. “‘Be sensible’ was the common answer I heard,” she said.

“Everybody pointed out that foreign courses are too expensive and demanding, and that I would never be able to cope and it would be a waste of money,” she told University World News.

Ozawa, who plans to be a pharmacist, relented. This month, accompanied by her mother, she is checking out local universities at ‘Open Campus’ events held by Japanese higher education institutions competing fiercely for a dwindling number of students.

Stories like Ozawa’s are what the Japanese government is hoping to reverse.

Only 59,000 Japan students studied abroad in 2009, down from 82,000 recorded five years ago. Overseas education statistics indicate that the United States was the top destination at 41%, with China following at 26% and the United Kingdom recording 6%.

In contrast, South Korea reported almost 90,000 students who entered universities in the United States, and India and China have doubled their numbers in the past two years.

Alarmed at the decline in the number of students studying in foreign institutions, the Education Ministry this year unveiled a plan to extend financial subsidies of between US$1 million and US$2 million to universities and departments that offer study-abroad programmes.

The objective of the grant scheme is to “create Japanese graduates who can survive in the 21st century”, defined by officials as developing a mindset that is adventurous and sensitive to diverse cultures while maintaining a Japanese identity.

“We have received more than 200 applications from universities and departments that outline projects to support students going abroad. The selection is in process right now,” said Naozo Fujita, spokesperson for the ministry’s Project for Promotion of Global Human Resource Development.

Language and jobs the major barriers

But, experts pointed out, Ozawa is a solid example of the obstacles that are holding back Japan’s bid to produce globally competitive youth.

“Japan’s younger generation struggle with poor English ability and shun tougher demands on them that are more common in foreign universities than at home,” said Professor Mikio Haruna, an international relations expert at Waseda University.

Another major barrier is finding secure jobs after they return from abroad.

Take the case of Mari Kaneko, a versatile translator in her thirties, who spent her savings to put herself through a masters programme in the US but has since only juggled freelance jobs in Japan.

“After five years in a Japanese company I decided to study abroad to advance my career. But when I returned home, my prospects in the male-dominated corporate world were as dim as ever. Its more stimulating to work freelance for foreign companies,” she said.

Shigeru Yamada, a former banker at Morgan Stanley in Tokyo, explained that foreign-educated youth are not easily welcomed into Japanese companies, which continue to reward seniority and loyalty above unique talents.

“The system is such that Japanese graduates with top foreign MBAs are treated on a par with their counterparts. This includes starting their careers in remote towns, the corporate norm, rather than being singled out for the special knowledge and experience they have learned abroad,” he explained.

Yamada said the trend was deeply entrenched in Japanese culture, where harmony is prized over diversity. “Increasing the number of students who will study in foreign universities cannot succeed without drastic social changes,” he said.

Akita International University bucks tradition

Thumbing its nose at Japanese tradition Akita International University, located in northwest Japan, is a small and exclusive public institution that provides classes in English for its 800 students. Graduation stipulates a year’s enrolment in a foreign college.

Professor Mineo Nakajima, who is in charge of the programme, explained that his students study extra hard to gain the high levels of English proficiency required for studying abroad.

He pointed out that going to a foreign country helps students to develop not only language capacity but also respect for other cultures, and to become self-confident – crucial characteristics for their futures.

“My students speak out and develop their goals, traits that are diminishing fast among youth in Japan. They even find jobs in Japanese companies that recognise their skills. This trend has to expand if Japan is to be a global leader,” he said.

The university has forged partnerships with Asian, American and European counterparts under an exchange student programme that allows credit transfer and tuition waivers for participants.

Nakajima believes this process will finally also force Japan’s conservative colleges to open up to foreign influences and create youth who can think globally.

Such viewpoints run counter to those of some academics who argue that the government should focus on support to increase the capabilities of Japanese students, who have gained a reputation as mollycoddled youth who seek safety over adventure.

Ozawa said the decision to study in Japan was clinched when she realised the danger of being sidelined in the increasingly tight domestic job market.

“I could learn more abroad but my priority is to be able to find work. Surviving in a foreign country after gradation is also not easy,” she said.

Since April, graduation month in Japan, only 63% of students have found jobs during an economic recession that has drastically reduced new hiring.