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How Japan can attract more students from overseas

by Ikuko Tsuboya-Newell

The Times Higher Education (THE) has been publishing World University Rankings since 2004, providing a definitive list of the world’s best universities evaluated for five indicators — teaching, research, citations, international outlook and income from industry. Ranking first for 2017-18 is the University of Oxford, and the second is the University of Cambridge. In third place is the California Institute of Technology (CALTEC) in the United States.

Out of the five indicators for evaluation, international outlook accounts for 16 percent of the total, and half of this — 8 percent — is based on the ratio of international students. For this particular section of the indicator, the University of Luxembourg, Qatar University, and the University of Hong Kong are the top three. With regard to universities here in Japan, this indicator is the weakest.

Overall, the growth in the number of international students is remarkable. According to UNESCO data, the total number of international students in higher education was 2 million in 1999, but in 2014 it topped 4.3 million. And the number keeps growing.

The phenomenal growth from around 2000 reflects the entry of the Chinese in the market. Today, 10 percent of international students are from China. English-medium countries such as the U.S., the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada, have all been eager to take a good share of those students. Some countries have developed strategic plans on how to succeed in the market so as to acquire foreign currencies.

In 1999, the U.K. set a target of having 75,000 more international students studying at its institutions of higher education by 2005. They estimated this would increase the economic impact of students from overseas studying in the U.K., including their tuition and living expenses, to £8 billion a year. What’s interesting is that the U.K. saw this project not from an educational point of view, but as part of its business strategy. Britain was also very aware that students from China care a great deal about the ranking of the universities of their choice. It does not look like a coincidence that THE started the World University Ranking in 2004.

By April 2006, the U.K. managed to increase the number of students from overseas by 118,000 — well above the target (which also meant the target of economic benefits was also attained). The same year, they set up a new target of 100,000 more students. It would be safe to say that the U.K.’s policy — which was smartly planned and executed — was successful. Remember that ranking number one and two again this year on THE list are both U.K. institutions.

Success in the international student market, as you would expect, has been led by English-speaking countries such as the U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada. All of these countries have seen a rapid growth in the number of students from aboard since 2000, with corresponding benefits to the economy.

While it might seem obvious that English-speaking countries have an advantage in attracting students from overseas, non-English language nations also have opportunities. Germany set a target of increasing the number international students studying in the country to 350,000 by 2020. The number reached 340,305 by 2016, ranking the country No. 6 after the U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada and China. Of the students, 137.000 are enrolled for degrees at higher education institutions. Students are predominantly from China, India, Russia, Australia and Italy — altogether, 28 percent of the students are from Asia. The Netherlands has also recently joined the competition. In 2014, the Dutch government announced an action plan called, ” Make it in the Netherlands,” and more international students have started going to the country over the last few years.

Japan set its own goal in 2013 — to have 300,000 international students enrolled at its schools by 2020. As of 2016, the number rose from 135,519 in 2013 to 239,287. This seems like a good result, but on closer look we see that enrollments have grown the most at Japanese language institutes, not at universities.

In 2013, Japanese language institutes had 57,212 international students, which increased to 118,400 in 2016. However, enrollment of students from overseas at universities only grew from 117,801 to 118;400 over the same period. This small gain indicates that the overall increase in the numbers has little to do with university enrollment. It also means that Japanese universities rank poorly in terms of their international outlook. In fact, the ranking of Japanese institutions of higher education have declined since 2013.

What should Japanese universities do? Already some of them have started to offer courses in English, and in some cases it is possible to receive a degree by taking all classes in English. In an education ministry-led project, a target has been set for 37 leading universities to offer degree courses by 2030 where one-fifth of all the lessons must be taught in English. But shall we wait until then? What about the other four-fifth of the courses?

My suggestion is that universities immediately start offering foundation courses teaching intensive Japanese. International students could be enrolled as full-time students and then for up to 18 months, they could mainly take intensive Japanese lessons along with some credit courses that do not require too much Japanese language ability such physical education, as well as others in English. This way, they could build up a good number of credits while building up their Japanese skills. Later, when their Japanese skills have improved, they can start taking other courses, and ultimately receive a bachelor of arts or bachelor of science degree. Even if a student’s Japanese skill doesn’t reach a high enough standard to go beyond the foundation level, they can go on to higher education in other countries and transfer their credits so they will not have lost time and money and they will have had an international experience.

Universities can also engage in public relations efforts to recruit graduates from international schools, which are rapidly growing in Asia and the Middle East. International school graduates have no hesitation in choosing international universities. Japan, as a desirable destination, could and should be one of their choices.

Universities in Japan have certain advantages in attracting overseas students. First, tuition is reasonable. In all national universities, tuition is less than $5,000 a year including medical and dental provisions. Even in private universities, the average yearly tuition is around $8,000. The fee is set regardless of the number of credits one takes. And only a very few students fail to receive their degree within four years. Once you are enrolled, graduation is almost guaranteed. Here the rate of students’ success in graduation is the highest in the world. Public transportation services are generally good and students will not need to drive to campus. Japan is quite safe so a female college student can walk home by herself late at night. A tasty, well balanced meal at a local restaurant is available for around $5.

Universities in Japan should realize that with a carefully thought out plan they can easily enroll more international students.

Ikuko Tsuboya-Newell is the founder and chair of Tokyo International School. She serves as the International Baccalaureate Japan ambassador and as adviser on revitalization of education commissioned by the education ministry.