Universities conducting classes in English, intellectual debates between foreign and Japanese students where new ideas are created — these are just some of the things the central government envisions for the nation’s higher education in order to become a magnet for talented researchers and students alike.

It also makes sense from a business standpoint and would help universities, which are suffering from a decline in their student bodies due to depopulation.

The education ministry has conducted various policy attempts to find such a solution, including increasing the number of classes taught in English and helping graduates secure jobs, but Japan has yet to come up with a game-changer to attract more foreign students.

In fiscal 2018, 298,980 foreign students came to Japan to study, up 77.8 percent from fiscal 2013, according to a survey conducted by quasi-governmental Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO).

At first glance, Japan is on course to achieve its goal of attracting 300,000 foreign students by 2020. But a closer look shows the actual increase is the result of the rising number of foreign students at Japanese language schools.

The number of foreign students studying at Japanese language schools was 90,079 in fiscal 2018, nearly triple the figure of 32,626 in fiscal 2013, according to the survey. The number of foreign students enrolled in universities, junior colleges or technical colleges was 87,806 in fiscal 2018, edging up from 69,339 in fiscal 2013.

“The increase of foreign students (in universities and colleges) is moderate compared with that of foreign students in language schools,” said Mitsuru Maruoka, a deputy director for student exchange at the education ministry. “We still have to work on increasing the ratio of foreign students enrolled in universities.”

According to data published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), international undergraduate students accounted for an average 2.5 percent of student populations at Japanese universities in 2016, well below the OECD average of 4.9 percent.

The ratio of foreign students is also a key factor in global university rankings compiled by Times Higher Education (THE), as well as Quacquarelli Symonds (QS). Japan is aiming to get 10 universities ranked in the top 100 by 2023. But in 2019, only two universities — the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University — made it into the THE ranking, while five made the cut for the QS ranking.

One of the lesser known projects funded by the ministry to attract elite foreign students includes the Study in Japan Global Network Project, a global recruiting project in which the ministry uses Japanese universities’ overseas offices as information centers in the key regions of Russia, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Southwest Asia, Africa and South America.

The project’s staff members visit local high schools to recruit students and follow up on those who have returned from studying in Japan in an effort to build a network of Japan-educated alumni.

To ensure foreign students have a comfortable living environment in Japan, the ministry also offers scholarships, around 11,000 of which will be awarded in fiscal 2019 — ¥117,000 a month for undergraduates and ¥144,000 for graduate students.

But the biggest obstacle preventing Japanese universities from realizing their global ambitions is the language barrier. The ministry aims to introduce more classes taught solely in English as well as the number of professors who can give lectures in English.

Launched in 2014, the Top Global University Project subsidizes 37 select universities based on their proposals to promote internationalization. While each university has its own agenda, the fundamental requirement is to double the number of lectures taught in English as well as the number of foreign students by fiscal 2023 compared with the year before the project started.

So far, the project has been successful in boosting the number of classes taught in English. In fiscal 2016, the number of such classes was 32,806, surpassing the government’s goal of 27,339. But the figures were still short for the number of foreign professors working at universities and Japanese professors who acquired degrees outside of Japan.

But even if there were more foreign students coming to Japan to study at universities where more classes are conducted in English, the question still remains as to whether the efforts will bear fruit in terms of students securing jobs in Japan.

According to a JASSO study released in fiscal 2017, 65 percent of foreign undergraduate students in Japan wanted to work in the nation after graduation, but only 35 percent found a job. One of the biggest reasons for the low figure was that Japanese companies expect foreign students to be able to speak Japanese fluently, the education ministry’s Maruoka said.

Most Japanese companies require them to have passed the highest level of the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test, the N1, but that still might not be enough, he said.

“It’s not just the language. It’s hard for foreign students to understand the way Japanese companies operate and the way they hire employees,” said Maruoka, adding lectures on the hiring practices in Japan and how companies operate should be made available.

To improve the situation, the ministry has introduced a program that offers foreign students a variety of business training sessions — including monthlong internships aimed at improving their employment prospects — in cooperation with universities, municipalities, and private organizations.

In 2018, 12 major Japanese universities participated in the project, creating tie-ups with over 100 registered companies.

The ministry is also making it easier for foreign students to switch to work visas after graduation and asking companies to ease Japanese language skill requirements.

Michio Kitamura, a professor specialized in international public relations at Hokkaido University, said that, first and foremost, each university needs to beef up its recruiting skills if they want to draw more foreign students — especially by polishing up their websites.

“The website is the very first gate to a university, and foreign students would not choose it if they are not convinced of the benefits,” he said.

Kitamura also reiterated the importance and the need for universities to create a system that helps foreign students overcome the language barrier.

“Even if the number of applicants increases, if their Japanese skills are not sufficient they will not be accepted,” said Kitamura. “Universities need to give foreign students extra time to study the language, and the introduction of a support system (to assist their studies) is crucial.”

Download the PDF of this G20 Osaka Summit Special

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.