The education ministry is tightening its oversight of universities accepting students from abroad following revelations that the Tokyo University of Social Welfare lost contact with more than 1,600 of its foreign students in the past three years. The institution has been effectively barred from accepting new students to its preliminary program, designed to prepare students for joining its regular courses, to which most of the students who have gone missing belonged. The ministry and the immigration authorities also plan to bar other universities found to be not adequately managing foreign students from accepting more of them.

The government seems well on course to achieve its target of accepting 300,000 students from abroad by 2020 — the number of foreign students enrolled at domestic institutions reached roughly 299,000 in 2018. However, these students are believed to include those who have come to Japan for the purpose of getting jobs while staying in this country on student visas, and it’s been pointed out that some universities — desperate to secure enough students as the nation’s youth population declines — accept such students in large numbers to stay financially afloat.

While the education ministry blames the Tokyo University of Social Welfare for having lost touch with a large number of its foreign students, many of whom are now believed be illegally overstaying their visas, the government may not escape criticism for its own lax oversight of the institutions in its bid to boost the number of students from overseas. It needs to grasp the overall picture of the problem and take remedial action as necessary.

Amid the tightening domestic manpower supply, the number of foreign workers in Japan continues to rise, hitting a record 1.46 million as of last October — a 14.2 percent rise from a year ago and roughly triple the figure a decade earlier. But a significant portion of the increase includes people who are not supposed to have come to Japan to find jobs, such as participants in the Technical Intern Training Program who are here to acquire vocational skills by working at businesses and farms, as well as foreign students who engage in part-time work at convenience stores, restaurants and so on.

People familiar with the issue point out that some students come to Japan for the purpose of working. As is often cited as a problem with the technical intern program, many such students reportedly incur debt by paying money to brokers in their home countries to make arrangements for them to come to Japan. Such students typically spend much of their time working to pay off the debt — possibly beyond the 28 hour-a-week limit allowed for foreign students. Some of them become too tired from working to concentrate on their studies and stop going to school.

The number of students from abroad at the Tokyo University of Social Welfare, founded in 2000, jumped from 348 in 2013 to 5,133 last year. Students from overseas now make up a majority of the university’s enrollment and comprise the second largest foreign-student body among universities in Japan. Following revelations in March that hundreds of its foreign students were unaccounted for, it has been announced that the missing students numbered 1,610 since 2016, while 292 others quit the institution and 162 were expelled over the same period.

Most of the students who vanished belonged to a preliminary preparation program to enter regular courses and were not counted in the university’s enrollment capacity. While the university has accepted some 5,700 students in the program since 2016, roughly 1,100 of them have gone missing. While many of the students in the program reportedly had poor Japanese language skills, the university is said to have failed to adequately increase the teaching staff or its facilities in response to the sharp rise in the number of foreign students.

The education ministry suspects that the university had little oversight of the many students who frequently skipped classes after enrollment or those who were absent for extended periods of time. Many of the students who finished the preliminary program were unable to move on to the regular courses. Only about 10 percent of them advanced to degree programs at the university or other institutions, while more than 40 percent joined vocational schools. Operators of the university should reflect on whether they can rebut criticism that they accepted students from abroad to secure admission and tuition revenue without adequately investing in teaching staff and facilities for the students.

Given that the government is pushing to invite more students from abroad to study at institutions in this country, it needs to improve its monetary of the institutions to make sure that the students are getting the education that they came here for.

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