Government tightens rules as foreign students ‘disappear’

Japan’s universities and language schools are coming under government scrutiny over the way they recruit, vet and monitor foreign students as the numbers ‘disappearing’ from institutions where they enrolled have increased dramatically.

In 2017, the Japanese Ministry of Justice said that dozens of foreign students who had enrolled in universities were found to have remained illegally in Japan after their student visa had expired.

Notably, the country’s foreign student policy has been rocked by a major scandal reported in March 2019 concerning the disappearance of more than 700 foreign students who stopped attending classes at Tokyo University of Social Welfare and had been out of contact with the university for nearly a year despite being enrolled in that academic year’s programme.

Strapped for cash, the university attracted more than 5,000 students who obtained visas after registering for a pre-university research programme for ‘non-regular’ students. The Japan Times reported that the missing students included nationals from Vietnam, Nepal and China.

The university scheme was backed by public subsidies that support increasing foreign student numbers in universities. In an interview with Japanese media after being arrested, university founder Tsuneo Nakajima said he wanted to earn JPY4 billion (US$36 million) over four years through the system.

He is now collaborating with a Japanese ministry of justice and ministry of education and culture investigation, with the university saying it will do whatever it can to avoid such disappearances in future.

The government has responded to the scandal by pledging to higher standards for prospective students, shorter student visa terms, and holding universities responsible for missing students.

Stricter controls

Japan’s Immigration Services Agency plans stricter controls and is considering reducing the length of student visas to one year, down from four years and three months, to enable greater tracking of students, as they would have to reapply each year. Strict penalties will be imposed on education providers that lose contact with substantial numbers of their international student body, the government said in a statement.

Among the stepped-up measures, the education ministry plans to inspect institutions with large numbers of dropouts and provide instruction on how the institution must improve. Those that fail to do so will be deemed to be “lacking the proper management of students” and will be referred to the justice ministry for further investigation.

The education ministry will make public which vocational schools have more than 80% foreign students. An initial survey indicated almost half of all vocational schools have high numbers of foreign students. The ministry says the schools will now have to report on the students’ Japanese-language proficiency, education content and what students do after completing their education.

Language schools

Statistics released by the justice ministry indicate that 298,900 student visas have been issued up to 2018.

According to the Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO), a government body, almost 40% of foreign students are attending undergraduate and graduate programmes. But the highest numbers – more than 90,000 students – are enrolled at Japanese language schools, with the rest studying at two-year specialised colleges offering subjects such as hotel management, agriculture or health care.

Yoshimitsu Sawa, emeritus professor at Saga University, is a fierce critic of the government’s foreign student policy, launched with much fanfare in 2000 with a target of attracting 300,000 students as part of the internationalisation of Japanese universities.

“That goal is simply not happening,” Sawa pointed out. “Instead of turning out brilliant students, we have a situation where foreign students gain visas and provide cheap labour in Japan that faces a severe blue-collar employment crunch.”

But Sawa explains this is not a one-off issue that can be blamed on unscrupulous management. He says it showcases the weakness of Japan’s higher education internationalisation policy.

“Too many universities in Japan cannot manage financially due to dwindling Japanese student numbers as the national population drops. If the underlying reason for increasing foreign students is to shore up Japanese universities and plug into national employment concerns, Japan’s foreign student policy has failed,” he said.

Magnet for Asian students

Japan’s foreign student population is overwhelmingly from Asian countries – more than 93% of all foreign students – where economically disadvantaged youth are attracted to Japan because of the availability of jobs to pave their way to work and study.

The fastest growing Japanese language study numbers are from Vietnam and Nepal – lower income countries compared to Japan. In 2018, there were 72,353 Vietnamese students, up 17.3% compared to a year before. Nepalese students numbered 24,331 in 2018, a 13.2% rise, according to JASSO statistics. Previous years recorded increases of 40% year on year.

“Agents working with Japanese language schools push Japan as a lucrative destination for Asian youth facing limited income opportunities in their own countries,” explained Associate Professor Yuriko Sato, an expert on foreign student policy at Tokyo Institute of Technology’s School of Environment and Society.

But her research shows that it is difficult for non-Chinese students to get into top Japanese universities. They struggle with learning the Chinese-based characters used in written Japanese and find it almost impossible to juggle work and university study demands.

While some Japanese language students have gone on to top universities, the majority find it difficult to cope both financially and in acquiring the high language skills demanded by employers.

Long hours

Dulshan, 21, arrived from Sri Lanka a year ago to study Japanese after his parents persuaded a wealthy relative in Sri Lanka to sponsor his two-year student visa. Under Japanese rules, within that time he has to become proficient in the language and then take the Japanese N1 examination to gauge his basic skills. If he passes, he can enter a Japanese university leading to an extended student visa.

In common with many foreign students, Dulshan, who asked that his full name is not disclosed, is permitted to work 28 hours a week. He is employed in a graveyard shift three times a week, cleaning aircraft at Tokyo’s Haneda international airport.

Although permission to work longer hours has made Japanese language and university study accessible to international students of limited means, it also means there is little time to study as he works from 8pm till 5am, returns home for a quick nap and then has to be in language school by 9am.

“I work on Sunday so Mondays are very tough, but I need the money to pay my school tuition and accommodation,” said Dulshan. The foreign students are paid by the hour. There are no Japanese working with them.

“I was playing around without much purpose as there is not much hope for poorer families in my country. Now that I am Japan, I want to have a new future studying the language,” Dulshan said.

University vetting

Some universities – a minority – already have rigorous vetting of students.

At Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU), around half of its students are from overseas – the second-highest proportion of a student body after Waseda University. Kenji Ito, assistant to the university’s president, says it carries out careful screening of foreign students “based on global standards”.

This is different to the majority of Japanese universities which foreign students apply to only after they have attended Japanese language schools.

“It is imperative that Japanese universities offer financial support to students if they want them to study hard and graduate,” Ito says. Students have to be able to pay at least one third of tuition and other expenses, he said, adding that unless they can show that they meet this criterion, they are not accepted.

He says the university’s office calls students if they miss classes.