Rie Yoshinaga had a wide range of colleges to choose from.
Having studied at a high school in Canada for 10 months, Yoshinaga, an 18-year-old native of Oita Prefecture in the northeast of Kyushu region, is perhaps more globally minded than many of her peers. She says she seriously considered applying for Australian universities — one of the closest English-speaking countries to Oita — until she realized there was an international university right in her hometown.
Yoshinaga is now a freshman at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU), whose 99,000-sq.-meter hilltop campus commands a panoramic view of Beppu Bay, and where nearly half of the 6,000 students come from abroad, representing 87 countries. Half of the faculty are foreigners, and classes are taught both in English and Japanese. Proficiency in Japanese is not required for international students seeking admission, but once they get in, international and domestic students undergo intensive language training in the two languages, so that when they graduate, they should all have perfect bilingual — or trilingual, depending on their native tongue — capabilities.
“I found this university attractive because, while it is located in Japan, it is international,” Yoshinaga said, noting that she had no interest at all in other Japanese universities. “I thought that, if I studied here, I could study Japan and its relations with other countries, including the rest of Asia, whereas if I went to Australia, I would be looking at Asia from an Australian perspective.”
In the eight years since its establishment, APU has built a solid reputation for providing a multicultural and multilingual learning environment for all its students — a rare example among Japanese universities, where foreign students are a tiny minority and often segregated into their own programs separate from local students. APU has also breathed new life into a dying onsen (hot-spring) town, by providing a yearly inflow of 6,000 young students who spend their cash locally, and through joint research projects with local governments and industries.
Universities such as APU are becoming increasingly popular in Japan as the population rapidly grays and the pool of college-age students shrinks. To survive, some universities are trying to attract more foreign students. The Japanese government decided in July to make the recruitment of foreign students a “national strategy,” committing itself to raising the number of foreign students from the current 118,000 to 300,000 by 2020 in hopes of improving the level of research at universities and attracting talent from overseas. To that end, Japan plans to ease immigration procedures, increase the number of classes taught in English and promote September admissions.
“The environment surrounding higher education is rapidly changing, and competition among universities is becoming stiff worldwide,” said Hiroshi Ota, an associate professor at Tokyo’s Hitotsubashi University who researches the internationalization of colleges around the world. “It’s like what’s happening to (Japanese players and) the Major League Baseball. Unless Japanese universities make themselves globally competitive, their researchers will be recruited overseas at high salaries and Japanese universities will be left out in the cold.”
Ota cites the emergence of global university rankings in recent years as a major factor fueling competition — and a sense of urgency — among Japanese schools. According to the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings 2008 announced Oct. 10, the University of Tokyo, regarded as Japan’s equivalent to Harvard or Yale, was ranked 19th, down two places from last year.
Perhaps more disappointing for Japan’s academic community, only three other universities — Kyoto University, Osaka University and the Tokyo Institute of Technology — cracked the top 100, while many colleges in the United States and the United Kingdom filled out the list.
In response, University of Tokyo Vice President Makoto Asashima said the latest THE-QS rankings do not reflect the “rapid changes” the university has implemented in the last few years to make itself more international. In the rankings, Japanese universities scored especially poorly in the ratios of international staff and students to local ones. But in 2005, the university set up an international relations division, whose staff has grown to 31 people. They have been coordinating international academic projects and student/ researcher exchange programs, Asashima said, noting that the university is doling out more scholarships and building new dorms to house 400 foreign students and researchers.
Ota of Hitotsubashi University also says such rankings are not comprehensive in their measurements. For one thing, the THE-QS evaluates the quality of research, not the quality of education or instruction, he says.
Ranking issues aside, Japan still can do a lot more to make its colleges attractive to students of all nationalities, experts say. A key indicator of a college’s competitiveness is its ability to get its graduates good jobs. Japan has not been very aggressive in hiring foreign college graduates, though the trend is shifting.
Nearly 10 percent of 3,244 companies surveyed last year by the semigovernmental Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training report that they have hired foreigners who studied at Japanese universities in the last three years, a majority of which said they did so because they wanted to tap “excellent resources regardless of their nationality.” Eighty percent of companies with experience hiring international students said they would like to hire such candidates again.
Still, job seekers’ needs are surely not being fully met (see sidebar). According to a June 2007 report compiled by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, while nearly 40 percent of foreigners who have graduated from Japanese universities hope to find employment in Japan, only 25 percent have landed such positions. Pasona’s own research of foreign students turning up at the company’s job fair shows more and more are interested in finding work in Japan or with Japanese companies, company officials said.
Besides the current dearth of solid opportunities for foreign graduates in Japan, there are questions about schools themselves relying on such students to keep up enrollment. APU president Monte Cassim warns that universities should not look at foreign students merely as a marketing strategy.
“The presidents of many universities I have talked to around the world see internationalization of higher education in the context of finding new student markets,” said Cassim, a Sri Lankan native who came to Japan as a student more than 35 years ago. “But if your only goal is to find new markets, why run a university?
“To me, the mission of universities is to find middle-to-long-term solutions to problems in society, and to keep sending out a message about what kind of society we should have. Without such a vision or an aspiration, universities would wander away from the right path.”