Japanese college students are studying abroad in fewer numbers than ever before. A new report from the nonprofit Institute of International Education in New York announced that a mere 19,900 Japanese students were enrolled in American colleges and universities in 2011-12. That is down 60 percent from the peak in 1997-98 when a total of 47,000 Japanese students studied in U.S. colleges and universities.
The 6.2 percent decrease from a year earlier is the seventh year-on-year drop, putting Japan after China, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Canada and Taiwan (in first to sixth places) for students in U.S. schools.
China had 10 times as many students and India five times as many. Even South Korea far outnumbered Japan with 72,000 students in American universities.
The reasons why Japanese students no longer go abroad are many and complex. For most Japanese families, education is one of the major expenses and deeply affected by the economic downturn.
However, the report found that Vietnam, Mexico and Turkey, the next three countries in the ranking, are sending more and more students even while their economies suffer. Japanese perceptions of the economy may mean that many students and parents see studying abroad as an extravagance and indulgence rather than a high value and necessary undertaking.
The declining birthrate and the competition inside Japan also contributed to the lower numbers. Many Japanese universities are expanding international studies programs that are run mainly, or even exclusively, in English. Those programs are good ones, but the portion of students they enroll will not have the experience of living in a different culture and environment.
The most important reason for Japanese deciding to study at home, though, is surely increased competition for jobs. The recruiting and interview schedule of most Japanese companies has become more rigorous, exacting and time-consuming than ever before.
When students study abroad, they fall out of the usual rounds of explanation sessions, pre-interviews, “entry sheet” submission and interviews.
If Japanese companies were to allow interviews of students after graduation, rather than during their third and fourth year, many students would surely head overseas.
If companies asked for language skills, international experience and a global mindset as part of their requirements, the numbers studying abroad would skyrocket. Business employment practices directly affect the educational process. That system needs greater flexibility and a broader mindset so students can go abroad and not lose out on the chance to get a job.
Changing the system requires careful coordination from the government and companies, with fresh attitudes and new procedures, but change is urgently needed.
Meanwhile, as Japanese students job hunt at home, students from other countries are gaining the language skills, cross-cultural mentality and educational experiences they will need in the future.