A distinctive response to COVID-19 in higher education

Compared to the United States, the United Kingdom and many European countries, Japan’s government appears to have imposed more restrictive regulations on higher education institutions.

However, the operation of Japan’s higher education institutions is also largely affected by market forces, given that nearly 80% of Japan’s higher education institutions are private universities and colleges and that all national universities and the vast majority of local public universities have become corporations since 2004.

This has made Japan’s experience and response to the pandemic’s effects on higher education different from those in the US and the UK or in centrally controlled countries such as China.

According to an end-of-October report issued by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, Japan responded to COVID-19 in two main ways in line with the changing development of the pandemic.

It has taken preventive measures to stem infection spread, such as early detection and strategic (geographically targeted) PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) tests in order to safeguard the health system; and it has adopted measures related to infection spread, such as focused enforcement of the Special Measures Law to protect the health service.

Postponements and extra funding

These may sound like the same measures taken by many other countries. However, Japan’s response to the pandemic in higher education seems to be unique and to have its own distinctive features when compared to both Western countries and some East Asian countries.

First, unlike many countries, the new academic year of Japan’s schools and universities begins in April. This was just the time when COVID-19 began to spread at home and worldwide this year.

According to a survey by Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), more than 90% of universities postponed the start time of the academic year.

Among the three different sectors of universities, 90.7% of national universities, 82.9% of local public universities and 87% of private universities delayed the provision of regular classes. Almost all universities that did not postpone classes carried out online teaching and learning activities or used other means of electronic instruction.

Second, despite the widespread use of online learning and teaching, the media of teaching and instruction varied depending on the different type of university. For example, as of 1 June, in contrast to the 26.7% of national universities that used both in-person and online teaching and learning, only 5% of local public and 10.7% of private universities undertook in-person teaching and learning activities.

Third, in order to deal with changing academic environments, the MEXT allocated a supplementary budget of US$93 million for all universities to ensure a good teaching and learning environment for students.

Furthermore, as a large number of both local and international students have to pay for their tuition fees by doing part-time jobs in Japan, the MEXT also worked out a series of programmes to provide financial support for approximately 430,000 students enrolled in universities, junior colleges, technical colleges, and so on, including inbound international students.

For example, students who were exempt from residence tax were given US$1,900 and other students, including inbound international students, received US$950.

Recently, the MEXT has also offered handouts of US$1,900 to international students in Japan if they have a grade point average of at least 2.30.

Other financially supportive measures include: students have been allowed to postpone paying their tuition fees; and individual universities were subsidised if they reduced the amount of students’ tuition fees or increased the number who are exempt from these fees by implementing more flexible systems to pay scholarships for some international students.

For example, if some international students had difficulties to get to their universities from their home countries, they could be awarded scholarships if they met the relevant requirements.

Support from individual universities

Supportive measures were implemented, not only at the national policy level, but also at the level of individual universities.

For example, due to the relaxation of immigration restrictions, the University of Tokyo has managed to secure appropriate accommodation for all inbound international students for the 14-day self-isolation period, helped to pay for their accommodation by providing a fixed sum of money and assumed responsibility for overseeing their health while staying at the accommodation facilities.

Moreover, the university has also assisted these students if they need any help to find a place to live after the isolation period.

Waseda University, one of the oldest and best private universities, has installed special air circulation systems in all its classrooms, ensured physically distanced seating and provided disinfectant in each room.

Hiroshima University (HU), a research institution that was established after World War II and is located in the central part of Japan, has launched a website called ‘Enhance Your Knowledge: 100 Great Lectures at HU (on-demand lectures)’ where thought-provoking lectures by leading HU faculty are delivered online. These can be accessed by HU students as well as the public and are provided either in English or Japanese.

In addition to these measures, both government and individual universities have been making efforts to establish a ‘new normal’ on campus in collaboration with industry and other stakeholders.

For example, government, industry, private companies and individual universities and academia have worked in partnership to address the various issues resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, especially R&D activities.

The MEXT has worked with the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development, the Japan Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association and universities to undertake dozens of joint research projects on the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of COVID-19 and to develop new medicines to combat the pandemic.

There has also been a nationwide push to encourage the use of hybrid teaching and instruction as well as online teaching and learning activities in higher education. A recent survey by the MEXT suggests that about 60% of education programmes are provided online or through a combination of face-to-face and virtual methods in the vast majority of universities.

In addition, almost all universities have built up risk-management frameworks and special committees, which have previously been rare in national and local public universities.

And, in most universities, in line with traditional faculty or academic development activities focusing primarily on new and young faculty and staff, all faculty members, administrative staff and students have been required to take training courses in how to deal with changing academic environments, how to master new technology and digital skills and how to protect data privacy, data security and avoid violating copyright.


Japan is different from either China, where national lockdown rules were introduced, or the US, where the Trump administration adopted passive strategies towards the pandemic, leading to widespread infection.

This is because Japan’s government developed a clear national plan aimed at fighting the pandemic and reducing its economic and social effects, which included its academic impact, from early on in the pandemic and has maintained this without any fundamental changes.

Moreover, there is a relatively good relationship built on trust, collaboration and partnership between the government, local authorities, industry and universities in Japan, compared to many other countries.

There is also a relatively strong belief in the public good of higher education at the regional, national and global level.

Finally, individual universities, especially private universities, have relatively high levels of institutional autonomy when it comes to adopting flexible and efficient measures to respond to COVID-19.

Futao Huang is a professor at Hiroshima University, Japan, and co-investigator on the Centre for Global Higher Education’s global higher education engagement research programme at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom.