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The government and universities need to improve the support system and quality of education for the increasing number of foreign students in Japan, an advisory panel of the education ministry said Thursday.

These recommendations are included in a draft interim report on measures to promote student exchanges between Japan and other countries compiled by a subpanel of the Central Council for Education, an advisory body to the education minister.

The subpanel began discussing the issue in December in response to a rise in illegal labor by students from overseas and to growing concerns that universities lack effective support and education systems for foreign students. The subpanel is expected to finalize the report by the end of this year, according to the ministry.

The government has emphasized the necessity of bringing in more foreign students and has encouraged universities and colleges in this regard. The panel, however, said numerical targets aren’t enough, and educational programs need to be upgraded to promote foreign people’s understanding of Japan and to enhance the international competitiveness of Japanese universities.

The panel also said the government can do more to support Japanese students studying abroad.

The recommendations in the panel’s report center on improving university exchange programs. But some critics say universities and the government would be better served by upgrading educational programs and thereby attract top-level students from overseas.

According to the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, 95,550 foreign students were studying at Japanese universities, colleges and technical schools as of May 2002. The total is close to the goal the government set in 1983 to boost the number of foreign students from 10,428 then to 100,000 early in the 21st century.

Mamoru Takahashi, a senior consultant of the Mitsubishi Research Institute who works with universities, said the government initiative to boost the number of foreign students has succeeded in promoting exchanges between Japanese universities and their counterparts overseas.

But he said the quality of some of the students has been a problem, as shown by the fact that some have been working here illegally. This was typified by the scandal at Sakata Junior College in Yamagata Prefecture last year, in which many of the Chinese students recruited by the school were found to be working in Tokyo in violation of visa regulations.

“Though the goal of accepting 100,0000 students has almost been achieved, the quality (of the programs and of the students) should be re-examined,” he said, adding that more than a few universities have been lax about determining foreign students’ motivations for studying in Japan and providing information on proper part-time work.

In its report, the panel proposes that universities thoroughly assess the motivations of foreign students at the time of entrance exams to prevent unauthorized labor and to maintain scholastic standards.

Masumi Ishida, director of the Center for International Exchange at Josai International University in Chiba Prefecture, said universities should examine foreign applicants’ academic abilities and reasons for studying in Japan, adding that his school has taken measures to recruit talented foreign students.

The admissions process at Josai, which has some 1,300 students from overseas, includes professors administering an essay exam in Japanese in foreign countries to assess applicants’ writing skills and motivation, interviewing applicants and their parents, and examining written applications.

Once enrolled, the university checks foreign students’ attendance and gives advice to those who tend to be absent, which effectively prevents unauthorized labor, Ishida said, adding that many of the foreign students in the school study harder than Japanese.

According to the report, more than 90 percent of foreign students in Japan are from the rest of Asia. The panel attributed this to Asia’s economic growth and Japanese universities’ eagerness to accept foreign students to offset the decreasing number of young people in Japan due to the low birthrate.

Takeshi Tamura, director of the Center for Student Exchange of Kyoto University, said graduate schools also have to solicit more students from overseas.

“Due to the declining birthrate, we are running short of human resources at the research level,” Tamura said, explaining the need to entice students and researchers from other countries.

The panel urges in the report that universities further promote exchanges of students with other countries to enhance their international competitiveness.

But critics say it is no easy task for the schools to attract top students from overseas.

Toru Makoshi, a professor at Obirin University in Machida, Tokyo, and a specialist in comparative education, said students with high academic standards in many other Asian countries prefer to go to top universities at home or in the United States.

“Unless the attractiveness of the curriculum at Japanese universities matches or exceeds that found in the U.S. or Europe, the top quality students will not come to Japan,” he said.

In addition to enhancing the level of education and research, many university professors say the government should improve the nation’s scholarship program to attract the best from overseas. The panel proposed in its report the necessity of re-evaluating this program.

Currently the government provides scholarships covering the full expense of studying in Japan for only 10 percent of foreign students. This year the amount comes to 26.7 billion yen. Of those on a full scholarship, 50 percent are selected through recommendations of Japanese embassies before coming to Japan and 10 percent are chosen by universities in Japan where they are studying.

Kyoto University’s Tamura said more students selected through the recommendations of universities where they are studying should receive the scholarship, so they have an incentive to achieve good results in their studies and research.

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