Abeducation – A new push for higher education internationalisation

Following the much-touted “Abenomics” floated by the administration of Japan’s new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to revive the country’s stagnant economy, Tokyo last week unveiled “Abeducation” to promote the internationalisation of the country’s higher education.

Abeducation, Abe’s growth strategy for education to develop human resources that can “prevail on the world stage”, is the latest official bid to reconstruct Japan. This is in line with new economic policies such as injecting new funds into the economy and other initiatives to resurrect Japan`s sagging clout in the world.

“Abeducation aims to enhance the globalisation of our higher education institutions that have fallen in international university rankings. It is time to transform Japanese universities to world universities so they can be placed within the top ranking,” Minister of Education Hakubun Shimomura said at a press conference last Tuesday.

Concrete steps outlined by Shimomura on 25 June include reform of university governance, expanding Japan`s almost non-existent online study programmes in the continuing education sector, and pushing for more collaboration between academia and industry through public subsidies.

Prime Minister Abe has said the aim is to have 10 Japanese universities in the world’s top 100 university rankings, compared with just two at present: Tokyo University and Kyoto University.

Low rankings scores

Japan’s top institution, the University of Tokyo, was 27th in the Times Higher Education 2012 World University Rankings, and 20th in the Academic Ranking of World Universities produced by Shanghai Jiaotong University in China, with universities in other Asian countries such as China and Singapore rising rapidly.

The relatively low international ranking of Japan’s universities is related to low scores on several international criteria, including a small international faculty and lack of classes in English. According to Ministry of Education data, less than 4% of the university’s faculty is foreign.

Last month, a 15-member government education panel headed by Waseda University President Kaoru Kamata submitted a report to Prime Minister Abe calling for more outward-looking universities, according to the Japan Times newspaper. It recommended boosting foreign students and teachers at the country’s universities and greater overseas collaboration, including joint degrees with foreign institutions.

It also called for Japanese universities to be more internationally competitive by inviting top foreign institutions to set up undergraduate and graduate programmes in Japan. Many of the proposals were backed by Minister of Education Shimomura as part of the Abeducation plan.

Study abroad and foreign students

Shimomura said Japanese university students aiming to study abroad to develop ‘global minds’ were a crucial aspect of education globalisation. Despite a straitened economy and a national debt, he promised financial support for students in a bid to double the current 60,000 Japanese students who go abroad. There are also plans to increase scholarships for foreign students to study in Japan with a target of raising the number to 300,000.

The government first announced this target in 2008, calling for the number of overseas students to rise to 300,000 by 2020, or around 10% of Japan’s 3 million university students. But Education Ministry figures showed that foreign students numbered around 124,000 in 2008 and had risen to only 137,750 by 2012.

According to a 2011 report on foreign students in Japan by the Japan Student Services Organisation, 90% percent of foreign students are studying at their own expense, with almost 7% financed by the Japanese government and just under 3% financed by their own governments. Asian students comprise more than 93% of the total, mainly from China and South Korea.

For the first time last year, the University of Tokyo started two undergraduate programmes geared towards international students and taught in English, with more expected to follow. The university established a strategic partnership with Princeton University in the US in February, which has been described officially as “ground-breaking” for ushering in collaborative research and teaching and faculty and student exchange.

Also in February, the university agreed to offer free online interactive courses through Coursera, a leading platform in the US, which also runs courses from top US institutions including Columbia, Princeton and Stanford Universities.

According to the Japan Times, the government push to nurture “global talent” is driven by the Kaidanren business lobby, whose members are expanding overseas and need globally oriented employees.

The lack of critical skills among university students, linked to a system that encourages rote memorisation rather than problem-solving, has also been identified by the government as a major issue in Japan`s globalisation efforts. Discussions are under way to replace the National Centre Test for University Admissions with an examination that can better judge students’ basic academic aptitude.

Japanese history

Still, Japan`s latent march to bring globalisation to universities, according to Shimomura, will also emphasise the development of a Japanese “identity” among youth:

“Japan has developed modern sophisticated technology that has contributed to human well-being, The diligence of the Japanese people contributed to national economic high growth,” he explained referring to the country`s advantages and its post-war economic miracle that has made it the third largest economy in the world.

"Japan has its own special traits that have contributed to its success. This special identity must be nurtured among youth, who can then understand the concept of globalisation better through a sense of history."

Shimomura, a conservative, believes teaching children and young people about the country’s history and culture would give them more confidence on the world stage.

He told Japanese newspapers last December: “During the 67-year post-war period, I think the Japanese people (lost) certain qualities they used to have, such as diligence and consideration toward others – the Japanese spirit – and that is why I want to reform the country’s education system.”