The benefits and risks of HE internationalisation

It is generally acknowledged that internationalisation of higher education results in both benefits and risks. Despite incredible difficulties in foreseeing the future of internationalisation, it is clear that both United States President Donald Trump’s policy and the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union will produce a great deal of uncertainty for internationalisation of higher education, not only in the US and the UK, but also other continents and countries.

In order to achieve a better understanding of what these external factors have meant for the internationalisation of Japanese higher education, the Research Institute for Higher Education implemented a national survey of vice-presidents and institution-level administrators who are responsible for international affairs or internationalisation in all national, local public and private universities in March 2017.

The national survey was implemented in 744 universities and colleges. By April 2017, 173 responses were received.

Like other East Asian countries, the Japanese government has recently implemented several national-level strategies aimed at internationalising its universities.

In contrast to the early 1980s when most of these strategies focused on attracting international students to study at Japanese universities, the recent policies and strategies devote more efforts to enhancing the global competitiveness of Japanese universities.

They seek to do this through further internationalisation and improving the quality of teaching and learning activities as well as academic performance.

For example, in 2009 the government launched a new Global 30 programme, aimed at accepting 300,000 foreign students by 2020. In order to achieve the goal, 13 universities, including seven national and six private ones, were selected to play a central role in implementing the programme.

Another important factor that might have affected Japan’s internationalisation is the make-up of its higher education system. Private universities and undergraduate students in Japan account for nearly 80% of the total.

Further, the different sectors play different roles in the system. National public universities are more involved in research and provide more academic programmes in engineering and medical sciences. By contrast, private universities offer more programmes in social sciences at an undergraduate level. Local public universities are concerned primarily with producing graduates who contribute to regional economic development.

Perceived benefits and risks

Among the main benefits agreed by higher education leaders were ‘students’ increased international awareness’ (95.9%), followed by ‘staff’s increased international awareness’ (90.8%), and ‘promoting international collaboration and partnership’ (89.6%). The lowest response was to ‘revenue generation’ (27%), with no research-intensive universities ticking this box.

By sector, all national public leaders emphasise the importance of ‘promoting international collaboration and partnership’, followed by ‘strengthening research and knowledge creation’ and ‘students’ increased international awareness’.

The benefit rated highest by leaders of local public institutions was ‘students’ increased international awareness’ followed by ‘staff’s increased international awareness’, ‘promoting international collaboration and partnership’ and ‘attracting domestic students’ interest in internationalisation’.

Private university leaders also rated ‘students’ increased international awareness’ and ‘staff’s increased international awareness’ highly.

Except for low responses to ‘revenue generation’ and quality citizenship skills, it was evident that all of the leaders of research-intensive universities have much higher positive responses to most of the benefits of internationalisation of higher education.

As for the risks of internationalisation, across the three sectors ‘growing gaps between universities within the country’ appeared as the most frequently mentioned risk (selected by 38.7%), followed by ‘overemphasising the acceptance of international students’ (28.7%) and ‘increasing gaps between regions and countries’ (26.7%). By contrast, the lowest concern was the ‘decline of quality of education’ (8.6%).

National public and private university leaders both saw ‘growing gaps between universities within the country’ as the top risk across while leaders from local public universities feared ‘increasing gaps between regions and countries’ most, followed by ‘growing gaps between universities within the country’ and ‘overuse of English as a teaching language’. A big worry for private universities was ‘internationalisation at the expense of staff and students’ other activities’ and ‘overemphasising the acceptance of international students’.

Both research-intensive universities and other universities see ‘the emergence of elitism’ as the number one risk followed by ‘growing gaps between universities within the country’. It is interesting to note that in both types of universities, it appears that ‘standardisation of curriculum’ is not a concern.

General consensus

These findings suggest that functional stratification between the three sectors of universities and also the different types of universities in Japan largely determines how leaders perceive the benefits and risks of internationalisation at individual universities. However, it cannot be denied that there is a general consensus around both the top ranked responses and lowest ranked responses.

It also appears that, in most cases, institutional leaders’ perceptions of the benefits and risks of internationalisation at their universities differ significantly from those of university leaders in the US, the UK, Australia and other English-speaking countries that have been increasingly affected by the market.

In general, the internationalisation of Japanese higher education is still highly valued and academically prioritised. They list higher responses concerning students’ and staff’s international awareness and international collaboration and partnership in research and knowledge creation. This is in particular contrast to those countries where internationalisation is primarily expected to generate more revenue at an institutional level.

Futao Huang and Tsukasa Daizen are professors at the Research Institute for Higher Education, Hiroshima University, Japan.