Boosting foreign student numbers to 300,000

The Japanese government has launched an ambitious scheme to attract 300,000 international students to enrol in its universities, while also encouraging more of its students to go abroad to study.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last month announced the government’s plans to further the globalisation of Japanese higher education. Abe told the Japanese parliament or Diet the two major pillars of the plan were strengthening English-language proficiency among Japanese students and increasing international student numbers to 300,000 over the next six years.

He said Japan aimed to double the number of Japanese students studying abroad by 2020 and increase the number of foreign teachers at eight state-run universities over the next three years.

Foreign students

The target to raise the number of foreign students to 300,000 had been previously set by former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda in a policy speech to the Diet in January 2008. But actual enrolments peaked at around 141,700 in 2010 just before the earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster of March 2011 which saw a mass exodus of foreign students.

But experts say that even before that, cuts in the number of scholarships and in the budget for the Global 30, a programme to fund international recruitment at 30 top universities, meant the rise in the number of foreign students was beginning to stall even before the 2011 disasters.

The most recent figures released by the Japan Student Services Organization show that last February there were 137,750 foreign students in Japan in 2012. Chinese students comprise the largest national group, followed by South Koreans.

A report prepared by ICEF Monitor last September said there were increasing signs of a strengthening demand for study abroad among younger Japanese students and among female students in particular.

“A recent survey of Japanese university students indicates a modest uptick in interest in study abroad. But nearly 40% of respondents to the survey indicated they were unwilling to study abroad, while 33% said they were interested in studying outside of Japan.

“This represents a modest shift from a previous survey in 2011: the percentage of respondents unwilling to study abroad dropped by nearly 2% from 2011 whereas the percentage interested in study abroad bumped up slightly by 6% in the 2013 survey,” the Monitor report noted.

Motivations to study abroad

It said concerns over cost and language barriers were the most commonly cited reasons among those not interested in study abroad. Students hoping to study overseas pointed to their gaining foreign language skills and improved employment prospects as their primary motivations.

“It is this last point – the search for better employment opportunities – that may be tipping the balance in terms of study abroad demand in Japan. Beyond the modest increase in interest captured by the Recruit Marketing Partners survey, there are indications of more dramatic shifts in demand among younger students (that is, high school age) and among female students in particular,” the Monitor report writers said.

It referred to a Ministry of Education document last August that revealed nearly 20% of Japanese graduating in 2013 would be without secure employment – or more than 115,000 graduates without jobs for that year alone.

Last year, almost 560,000 Japanese students graduated from university with two in every three securing full-time jobs or being self-employed. Another 23,000 were working in jobs that were not permanent.

The Monitor report said that “given this challenging employment outlook”, it was not surprising that increasing numbers of Japanese students were studying abroad, whether with the goal of gaining greater access to employment opportunities overseas or as a means of gaining a further advantage in a tough job market at home.

It noted that Canada had become a favourite as a study destination for Japanese students in recent years because those undertaking short-term language courses did not require a Canadian visa. At the same time, this growing number was not taken into account in government statistics although the Canadian government reported a 10% increase in visas issued to Japanese students from 2010 to 2011.

While increasing numbers of Japanese students were seeking to undertake undergraduate studies in other countries, last year more than 72,000 graduates were expected to go on to graduate schools outside Japan.

There are indications of growing demand among Japanese students for undergraduate studies abroad and the Japanese Ministry of Education notes as well that more than 72,000 of this year’s 559,000 university graduates in Japan will go on to an overseas graduate school.

* See also Suvendrini Kakuchi’s report on Japan’s efforts to attract more foreign scholars in our general news section.