Government backs overseas campuses, but hurdles remain

Japan’s education ministry has indicated that it will provide some support for Japanese universities wanting to set up branches or campuses overseas, in part to increase the numbers of Japanese students who want to study abroad and to attract foreign students to come to Japan.

This comes amid ongoing reforms to globalise Japan’s higher education.

The country’s first overseas campus in Malaysia, being set up by the University of Tsukuba, is being closely observed by other universities as a landmark test for the future of such campuses, said experts in Japan.

They pointed to lengthy bureaucratic regulations to gain approval for new campuses and other hurdles that have delayed the Malaysia campus of Tsukuba, a leading publicly-funded science and technology institution.

The University of Tsukuba will be the first Japanese university to offer a Japanese degree abroad. The university is part of the government’s Top Global University project, launched in 2014 to receive funding for a decade to enhance global competitiveness in Japanese higher education.

The Malaysia campus was planned in response to a request by the Malaysian government in 2018. But a memorandum of understanding was only signed in March this year.

Malaysia’s Minister of Higher Education Mohamed Khaled Nordin was quoted in Malaysian media as saying the Japanese campus will increase educational opportunities for students from abroad and make Malaysia a centre for talent and knowledge from around the world.

But obstacles have beset the project, with an almost five-year delay in setting up the new campus. Negotiations had focused on setting guidelines that meet Japanese and Malaysian legal and curriculum requirements, said officials from the Ministry of Education Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT).

The COVID-19 pandemic added to delays, and also caused a drastic decline in student mobility internationally between 2020 and 2022.

The branch campus is now scheduled to open in September 2024. On 6 September, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, during informal talks with his Malaysian counterpart Anwar bin Abrahim, stated that the campus was also part of Japan’s pledge to work closely with Malaysia to strengthen bilateral relations, highlighting foreign policy, not just educational aims behind the project that have kept it going.

Masaki Uemura, deputy director of the International Higher Education bureau at MEXT, told University World News: “The Malaysia campus is supported by the University of Tsukuba and the Malaysian government. The project aims to strengthen Japan’s higher education international presence.”

The administration of the new Malaysia campus will be both Japanese and Malaysian, with administration led by locals. Visiting Japanese academics will also be involved in providing Japanese and English language instruction.

Risky foray

MEXT has requested a budget of JY1.5 billion (US$10.2 million) for fiscal 2024 to support campus rent, facility maintenance and personnel expenses for branch campuses. But other details, including countries and other types of support, are still being discussed, according to media reports.

In April this year, MEXT established the Council for the Creation of Future Education chaired by the prime minister, Kishida. A key policy is providing subsidies for universities proposing campuses abroad under the goal of promoting Japanese cutting-edge science and technology in the Global South, which includes emerging and developing countries.

Uemura said the aim is also to nurture ‘global-minded’ Japanese students by giving them the opportunity to study in overseas campuses while increasing graduate-level foreign students at Japanese universities, aimed at boosting Japan’s research capacity to international standards.

Professor Keiko Ikeda, vice-director of the international affairs division at Kansai University, and a member of the new MEXT Council, described the Tsukuba branch campus as a risky foray by Japan into the competitive higher education market.

“The University of Tsukuba faces tough international competition for students against the established brand names of Western higher education institutes that dominate the international higher education market given their advantages such as English language curriculums,” Ikeda told University World News.

Malaysia already hosts several foreign university campuses, including Monash University in Australia and the University of Reading in the United Kingdom. According to 2023 data from the United States-based Cross-Border Education Research Team (C-BERT), some 86 United States universities and 45 British offer full-time courses in campuses abroad.

Ikeda noted that a key reason for Japan being ‘left behind’ other countries, is the entrenched domestic focus of Japanese higher education. Lack of English instruction, a limited number of foreign faculty and the fact that more than 90% of Japanese undergraduates enter the local job market, are viewed as some of the main factors.

Ikeda explained that the proposed MEXT reforms also include adjustments to traditional job recruitment. “Initiatives have to be taken to encourage Japanese companies to start an online recruitment procedure. This will ease anxiety among (Japanese) students who don’t want to be left out [of recruitment rounds] while studying abroad,” she said.

Against this backdrop, experts predict a slow response from Japanese universities to the government’s push to establish campuses overseas, which includes support for both public and private universities.

“We are not planning an off-shore expansion. The focus is on increasing our foreign students who apply to study Japanese language and work in Japan. Promoting diversity is the strength of our university,” said Kenji Ito, manager, Tokyo Office, Ritsumeikan, at Asia Pacific University.

Ito also referred to the major challenge to Japan’s 800 private institutions posed by the decreasing student population due to Japan’s demographic crunch. Many private institutions are struggling to maintain financial sustainability.

Japanese universities offer overseas student exchange programmes to cater to Japanese students’ preference for shorter international experiences of two weeks to a month.

But Professor Yoshio Murakami, who teaches media at Temple University in Tokyo, said Japanese campuses could be popular, especially for Japanese applicants who are seeking a safe learning environment: “Crime, especially in the United States, deters Japanese students from applying for programmes abroad. Our Tokyo campus has swelled over recent years,” he said, referring to students’ lack of interest in going abroad.