Conservatism, red tape thwart international education

It is bitterly ironic – Japan has the third largest economy in the world and is a leading exporter, but fails badly when it comes to international education.

“Japanese university education needs to be urgently vitalised to survive against stiff global competition,” said Dr Akito Okada, who teaches comparative and international education at the prestigious Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.

Universities “have stayed too long relatively unbothered by the global currents of education services seekers, due to the language barrier and traditional internal orientation of higher learning”.

Okada explained that a primary reason for slow change in Japanese tertiary education was resistance from conservative academics. He strongly advocates the development of a curriculum that prioritises students’ needs in a globalised world.

Recognition and red tape

The liberalisation of the Japanese higher education system, which is tightly regulated by the government, took a first legal step in 2004 under a regulation that allowed foreign universities to apply for Japanese university status.

Under this law, named “Japanese Branches of Foreign Universities”, campuses in Japan may offer courses and award degrees of a foreign university, and should be treated similarly to Japanese universities except for tax exemption.

But research for the Asian Development Bank by Shintaro Hamanaka, under the theme of regional economic integration and released last December, revealed that critical issues remain; none of four foreign campuses in Japan have obtained formal university status.

At the top of the list of Hamanaka’s concerns is that the law recognises branches of foreign universities but not the establishment of foreign subsidiaries – a system, he said, that limits the scope of higher education services.

He explained in his report that “the law implies the Japanese government acknowledges that the authorities responsible for a foreign university campus in Japan that do not rely on Japanese laws and regulation, are foreign authorities…”

One upshot is that while graduates of the Tokyo campus of Temple University, an accredited branch of Temple University in the United States, cannot apply for graduate studies at Japanese universities, students in the United States are qualified to do so.

Another issue for Hamanaka is the registration process for formal education services, which is subject to approval of the government that in turn relies on the recommendations of the University Council.

He describes this system as highly regulated decision-making that is not transparent, given that the “demarcation between the two entities in exercising power is ambiguous”.

Another hindrance to the establishment of fully fledged foreign university campuses, he said, is the fact that official recognition involves the observance of inflexible regulations that do not necessarily conform to the standards of foreign institutions.

Professor Jeff Kingston of the Tokyo-based Temple University campus explained to University World News that the campus aimed to be recognised as different but equal to its Japanese counterparts.

“Our curriculum has the reputation of being strong in Asia studies and able to develop students with critical thinking skills. Teaching is in English and follows American methodologies that are different to the traditional Japanese style, where students sit and listen to their professors and wait for instructions,” he said.

Temple University’s student body is around 1,100, roughly divided between Japanese and foreign nationals. The campus has not applied for formal recognition and is registered as a private entity, a status that does not allow faculty to apply for government research grants or tax exemption.

Professor Takashi Inoguchi, an international relations expert and president of Niigata International University, is another leading advocate for change.

He explained that registration in Japan requires foreign campuses to teach in Japanese and follow laborious and parochial rules and regulations that include heavy investment in infrastructure. Together, these can dampen the enthusiasm of most newcomers.

“The advantage of gaining official recognition is tax waivers and jobs in Japan for the students. But the tedious process of maintaining standards that heavily focus on Japanese cultural traits, such as maintaining harmony, is not attractive to foreign universities.

“Ushering in internationalisation in higher education is a long way off,” he said.

Need for globally minded youth

The call to foster more globally minded youth in Japan is now widely supported by the Japanese business community, which is seeking such employees to meet overseas business expansion. In response, leading Japanese universities have begun to launch programmes aimed at achieving this purpose.

Private institutes such as the universities of Keio and Waseda, for example, have started English language graduate degrees, recruited more international faculty and plan to increase foreign student numbers – a process that Kingston pointed out poses stiff competition for foreign campuses setting up in Japan.

Moreover, regional governments, faced with dwindling and ageing populations, are eager to woo foreign campuses to lure youth back to their areas.

For example, Chatan Town in the Okinawa prefecture, which is the reluctant host to US military bases, is discussing the possibility of setting up a local campus with the University of Maryland.

Still, Akito Okada explained, the going is slow and Japan is faced with the very real threat of being left behind.

China and India are attracting top foreign universities such as Stanford, which opened the Stanford Centre at Peking University as a home base for visiting research faculty and students in China. There is a branch of Harvard Business School in Mumbai.

Such names have yet to arrive in Japan.

“Despite the stark reality facing Japan, another important fact that bogs the country [down] is that Japanese students, who have been reared in a narrow homogeneous society, would prefer to enrol in Japanese universities where they study in their language and do not confront the challenges of foreign cultures,” he said.