Students at Tokyo’s Waseda University in early June gave group presentations in English, covering social networks and other topics during a class on globalization.
Though not so lively, as some struggled with their English and others weren’t used to speaking in front of their peers, the participants made the most of a rare break from the conventional college norm of just listening to lectures.
“Having discussions and presentations is stimulating,” said Hayato Sawa, 19, one of the 40-strong class, which includes Chinese, Koreans and Westerners. “It’s also effective to speak in English.”
Sawa, who wants to become a diplomat, said he hopes to study politics overseas, especially at a Washington-based institution.
Waseda is one of the leading universities introducing curriculums to educate students who can think, talk and operate in a globalized community. It aims to boost the number of its students who study abroad to 8,000 in the 2022 school year, up from 1,848 as of the end of March, and to nearly double the number of international students it admits to 8,000, up from 4,427.
This is just what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s growth strategy for education is based on, aiming to create opportunities for those with the “will and competency” to study abroad so Japan can develop human resources able to “prevail on the world stage.”
But how to achieve, and particularly finance, these goals has yet to be clearly spelled out by a government deeply in debt.
The government hopes to double the number of students in overseas exchange programs to 120,000 by 2020, compared with the 2010 level. Abe also plans to boost the international competitiveness of domestic universities. But how he plans to surmount the various hurdles to accomplish these goals remains elusive.
“We aim to have 10 Japanese colleges in the top 100 World University Rankings in the next decade,” Abe said, referring to the list compiled annually by British magazine the Times Higher Education. Only two of Japan’s academic institutions made the current list — the University of Tokyo, in 27th place, and Kyoto University, at 54th.
Abe’s push to nurture “global talent” is driven by the nation’s biggest business lobby, Keidanren, whose members have been expanding overseas and need employees who can work in a borderless corporate environment. To nurture such human resources, Keidanren has engaged in several projects, including scholarships to encourage more students to go abroad, and holding summer job fairs for students returning from overseas colleges.
Keidanren noted in June 2011 that Japanese university students are falling behind in ability, as admittance standards decline amid the nation’s depopulation and “yutori kyoiku” (relaxed education) in elementary, junior high and high school.
“At present, there is a gap between (the quality of) human resources universities are nurturing and (the standard) that industries demand,” it said.
Keiichiro Kobayashi of the Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry noted that whether policies that need long-term expenditures, including educational initiatives, can actually be achieved is unclear because of the nation’s ballooning debt.
“Because the current administration’s priority is to remain at the helm, it hopes to delay drastic measures for fiscal reform,” Kobayashi, who is also a professor of economics at Keio University, said in a report. “This means the government’s pledge to carry out long-term policies (that may increase the risk of fiscal collapse) is untrustworthy.”
Takuma Naito, a group manager at Nomura Research Institute, says Japanese firms must begin by specifying exactly what types of employees are necessary, based on their global strategies, since they differ from company to company. Naito said that as it usually takes 10 to 20 years to nurture a workforce, they need to act pronto.
“Many companies say they need people with ‘global talent,’ but what they first need to do is to come up with a corporate strategy that will clarify specifically what kind of human resources they need, and what training is necessary,” Naito said.
In addition, businesses have neglected to train middle-aged and older employees to create a comprehensive globalized workforce, since much of the debate focuses on younger generations.
“Firms don’t have the financial strength to turn a 45-year-old worker into a global talent. That’s where the government comes in, to support companywide globalization efforts,” Naito said.
He also noted the government has to reform education not only at the university level but at a much earlier stage, because all-embracing efforts are necessary to foster globalized employees.
“If it is explained to (students) what ‘globalize’ means, then they can understand why they need to study (certain) subjects, including English. Education works out truly (only) if it is aligned with the globalization of society,” Naito noted.
Students taking Waseda University’s globalization classes, at least, seem to be on the right track.
Kang Soyun, 21, a South Korean native who hopes to find work at a multinational Japanese company, said she aims to acquire the level of skills such businesses now require, including English-language levels.
“This class broadens my perspective. I think it’s important to stay interested in global issues, to have a flexible mind and to accept and understand various cultures,” she said.
Shinichi Hirota, who heads Waseda’s international affairs division, said he doesn’t have the impression that the university’s students are inward-looking, pointing out that these days, they tend to have an interest in studying or working overseas.
According to a survey of Waseda students, 81.8 percent of 698 respondents polled said they want to go abroad, including to study, while 70.4 percent indicated they would like to work overseas.
“As the media for several years have been talking about the need to acquire ‘global talent’ to land a (good) job,” Hirota said, “students have come to grasp the necessity of going overseas for their future.”