Will Japan be able to lure international students back?

Like many other countries, the number of international students on Japanese campuses declined due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to data from the Japan Student Services Organization, the total number of international students decreased from 279,597 in 2019 to 242,440 in 2020 – a reduction rate of 13.3%. In addition, the employment rate of international students in Japan also declined to 39.9% in 2020 compared to 47.6% in 2019.

In order to change the situation, the Japanese government launched the Direction of Global Policy Based on Higher Education: Toward the recovery of student exchange that has been drastically reduced due to COVID-19 on 26 July 2022. The goal is to return to pre-pandemic levels of hosting international students and dispatching domestic students abroad within the next five years.

With regard to incoming international students, the government has formulated several specific strategies. In cooperation with the relevant ministries and agencies, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) will redesignate the priority areas and regions from which international students will be accepted in the light of changing needs.

When it comes to disciplines, a higher priority will be placed on recruiting international students in engineering, medicine, social sciences (particularly law) and agriculture. By region, there will be more targeted efforts made to attract international students from countries in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region and Africa.

The government will also strengthen information dissemination to international students in cooperation with overseas study abroad centres and public relations agencies and promote the attractiveness of Japan to international students who are interested in studying in Japan.

Working in Japan

Another plank of the strategy is strengthening support for international students seeking employment and starting their own businesses.

The government will further promote the development of educational programmes centred on business Japanese language education and internships, which are considered to be important skills for international students looking to be employed in Japan after graduation.

In addition, the strategy will also expand the support needed to encourage international students to participate in such programmes in Japan and ensure they don’t drop out.

This will be coupled with better employment support for international students. In cooperation with relevant ministries and agencies, MEXT will make further efforts to support the employment and retention of international students by forming a consortium consisting of local governments, universities, economic organisations, Japanese companies, etc, in the region.

In cooperation with relevant ministries, agencies and universities, the government will also strengthen the network of former Japanese Government Scholarship students who have studied in Japan, encourage them to contribute to internationalisation work and revitalise this network to attract international students in the future.

Moreover, in order to promote the smooth acceptance of international students, the government will submit a new bill concerning a new qualification system for Japanese language teachers and an accreditation system to maintain and improve the standard of Japanese language education institutions.

In order to promote continuous study at Japanese universities and the future retention of international students, the government will also actively promote the acceptance of international students from the upper secondary school level and support the development of an inclusive and accepting environment.

The search for international talent

There are several reasons for the government to implement this strategy. Since the early 1990s, there has been a shrinking 18-year-old population in Japan, so securing high-level international talent, including international students, is considered to be indispensable to drive Japan’s social development in the future.

International students are expected to become a workforce reserve of Japanese society. The demand for highly skilled international talent is increasing in a wide range of fields in Japan, and the need to accept more excellent international students than ever before from other countries has become a pressing issue in recent years.

Furthermore, as the number of both private universities and colleges and private students accounts for approximately 80% of the total of students and the operation of the private sector largely relies on charging tuition and fees from students, it is hoped that accepting international students can help these private institutions to improve their financial situation.

Moreover, accepting international students is viewed as a significant way to improve the quality and diversity of Japan’s higher education and internationalise Japanese society generally.

Like many other Asian countries, Japan has launched some national projects to build world-class universities over the past decade. High quality international students are expected to stimulate and improve the level of education and research and global competitiveness of Japan.

Finally, hosting international students is also seen as an effective way to build bridges between Japan and their home countries by giving them a good understanding of Japan so this can contribute to the promotion of international exchange, mutual understanding and friendship with other countries.

Challenges for internationalisation

There is little doubt that Japan will be facing many challenges when it comes to fulfilling the aims of this internationalisation strategy.

Japan used to be the centre of learning in Asia in the 20th century. However, several Chinese universities have been ranked higher than Japanese universities in several global university ranking systems in recent years. China’s global presence and the impact of its research in science and technology development have become increasingly clear and powerful.

This is one of the factors that contributed to Chinese universities and research institutes attracting a greater number of international students and talent than Japan by 2019.

Furthermore, unlike countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, which have high levels of immigration, the extent to which Japanese society can accept a large number of international students wishing to stay and work in Japan after graduation is not entirely clear. This may affect the successful realisation of the strategy’s goals.

More importantly, countries like South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong have announced more generous visa policies. Japan has to work out effective ways to compete with these countries and systems and become an attractive destination for international students.

The changing landscape of higher education, especially the impact of changing geopolitics in the region, will inevitably affect the flow of inbound international students to Japan. For example, students from mainland China continue to be the largest group of international students since the 1990s and now constitute nearly half of the total number.

Whether it comes from a change in ideology or geopolitical policy or a change in policy regarding COVID-19, the number of Chinese students studying at Japanese universities may decrease and this will undoubtedly affect to a large extent whether Japan can achieve its desired goals in the next five years.

Futao Huang is professor at the Research Institute for Higher Education, Hiroshima University, Japan.