A student seeking to study at a graduate school in the United States must take two sets of test — the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).

The GRE consists of three sections: analytical writing, verbal (assessing comprehension, critical reasoning and vocabulary usage in English) and quantitative (assessing basic-level math knowledge and reasoning skills).

The GRE is required of both American and foreign students, and those from outside the U.S. will need to achieve high scores in the analytical writing and quantitative sections because they cannot expect to do equally as well as Americans in the English-language verbal section.

Students from India, where English is almost a mother tongue, naturally do well in TOEFL and score high grades in the English verbal section of the GRE, compared with Americans. Those from countries like China and South Korea study so hard that they, too, get high marks in both TOEFL and the GRE.

Many Japanese university students do quite poorly in both TOEFL and the GRE, perhaps because the English language is taught in Japan primarily to pass university entrance examinations — a way that is not beneficial when it comes to taking TOEFL. The average TOEFL scores of students from 30 Asian countries show that Japan ranked 27th, with only Laos, Tajikistan and Cambodia trailing behind.

Lately the Japanese government appears to have sensed a crisis over the decline in the number of both foreign students coming to this country and Japanese students going abroad for study. In 2008, the government announced a plan to increase the number of students from overseas to 300,000 by 2020 (accounting for 10 percent of the estimated 3 million students in Japanese higher education institutions). In reality, however, the number rose from 124,000 in the academic year 2008 to only 138,000 in the academic year 2011, showing how difficult it will be to achieve the 300,000.

A breakdown of foreign students in Japan shows that 60.5 percent are studying humanities and social sciences at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Students from Asian countries account for 93.5 percent of the total (Chinese and South Koreans together represent 79.5 percent), Europe 2.7 percent and North America 1.3 percent, showing that an overwhelming majority of them come from China and other parts of Asia. Those studying at graduate schools account for a mere 28.8 percent. The remaining 70-plus percent of students from abroad are enrolled at undergraduate schools, junior colleges, vocational schools and language schools.

According to the 2011 report on foreign students in Japan compiled by the Japan Student Services Organization, 90.5 percent of the students are studying at their own expense, while 6.8 percent have their expenses financed by the Japanese government and 2.7 percent are financed by the governments of their native countries. These statistics indicate the following:

(1) A majority of foreign students studying in Japan come from wealthy families in Asia who can afford the entrance examination fees, tuitions and living expenses. They may not necessarily be students with top-class qualifications.

(2) A majority of the foreign students are pursuing undergraduate and vocational curricula in Japan because they have failed to advance onto higher education in their own countries and instead chose to study at Japanese universities or vocational schools.

A number of Japanese universities accept foreign students with virtually no examinations. During the 2012 academic year, 45.8 percent of private four-year universities were unable to enroll enough students to fill their quota for a fixed number of students, leading them to rely on students from Asia to avoid bankruptcy.

(3) The reason why more than 60 percent of the students from abroad are taking humanities and social sciences at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels is that the national and other public and private universities in Japan have opened their doors wider to foreign students following the government’s decision to expand the enrollment capacity for their graduate curricula. As this policy has made it impossible for those institutions to fill the expanded capacities with Japanese students alone, they decided to rely on foreign students to fill the fixed number of students.

In China and South Korea, the master’s and doctoral degrees are considered overwhelmingly more valuable than in Japan. It makes perfect sense, therefore, that parents in those countries, whose children could not study in nations like the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia, spend huge sums of money for the second-best choice of having them study at Japanese graduate schools.

(4) The small number of foreign students in Japan whose expenses are covered by the governments of their own countries suggests that a majority of those who have passed the highly competitive examinations for the stipend have chosen to study at graduate schools in North America and Europe. Only a small number of students — such as those aspiring to become specialists in Japan-related studies — have chosen to pursue postgraduate curricula in Japan.

(5) Most of the North American and European students, who account for a mere 4 percent of foreign students in Japan, are enrolled at graduate schools with an eye on becoming Japanologists. But even the number of such students has been on the decline, presumably reflecting the decline of Japan’s economic power and international status.

It is a pity that the large majority of students from Asian countries seeking to study abroad prefer graduate schools in North America and Europe as their primary choice. It’s no exaggeration to say that those who see Japan as their primary choice are mostly students who majored in Japanese at universities in their own countries. Since they are proficient in Japanese, they study economics and social sciences at graduate schools in Japan to acquire the master’s and doctoral degrees, which will provide them with a good chance of landing jobs at Japanese corporations.

Some people have argued for some time that the reason why only a relatively small number of foreign students come to Japan is its unique system of starting the academic year in April. They advise changing the beginning of the school year to September in line with the practices of most countries in the Northern Hemisphere.

I have argued that while a change in the academic year and making English the standard language at graduate schools may increase the sheer number of students from overseas, such changes would provide little or no possibility of boosting the enrollment numbers of “outstanding” students from abroad who seek to study in Japan.

Universities may follow a “good” or “bad globalization” path. What we see at present is “bad globalization.” A prerequisite for promoting “good globalization” is elevating the levels of education and research at Japanese universities.

Takamitsu Sawa is president of Shiga University.

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