Japan’s often derided efforts to internationalise its universities are quietly bearing fruit, as student mobility programmes help generate a buffer against demographic decline and rankings free fall.
While the standing of many Japanese institutions slipped in Times Higher Education’s Asia-Pacific University Rankings, released last month, the country’s top-tier universities held their ground against rampant competition from China.
Japan-watchers credit efforts to attract international students, which have exceeded expectations, and a Chinese-style programme of investment in the country’s top institutions.
Futao Huang, a professor at Hiroshima University’s Research Institute for Higher Education, said that the Designated National University scheme was giving a select group of institutions greater freedom in their internal governance arrangements.
“More importantly, they have been allocated additional funding to internationalise their campuses – to develop new academic programmes, provide new positions for faculty, fund more of their own students to go abroad, and undertake more globally collaborative activities.”
The scheme could accelerate what is already a steady increase in overseas student numbers, which have increased by between 12 and 15 per cent annually for the past few years.
The Japan Student Services Organisation says that 299,742 foreigners studied in the country during the 2016 fiscal year. This is just a shade off a target of 300,000 international students by 2020 that was set in 2008.
Japan’s top eight institutions – the seven “imperial” universities and Tokyo Institute of Technology – maintained their collective performance in this year’s Asia-Pacific rankings. Four improved their positions by a total of 18 places, while four gave ground by the same number of places.
Significantly, while they rated relatively poorly on their “international outlook”, all eight nevertheless improved on their 2017 scores in this metric.
Professor Huang said that the campaign to import students was “significantly driven by improving the international competitiveness of Japanese universities and their presence in global rankings”. It was also motivated by a need to compensate for declining domestic enrolments and a wider drop-off in the number of working-aged people.
He said that foreign students in Japan were encouraged to remain after graduation, and “given much longer time to stay in Japan to look for jobs”. This is part of a deliberate strategy to help insulate Japanese communities against demographic decline.
Saddled with one of the world’s lowest birth rates and highest median ages, many cities – particularly smaller regional ones – are desperate for workers.
Professor Huang said that the small city of Beppu, on the south-western island of Kyushu, had seen an influx of foreign students after the Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University – which pioneered English-language teaching – was established in 2000.
“Inbound international students account for almost half of the total students,” he said. “A vast majority are hired in the city or centres nearby. They have contributed considerably to the economic development of the region.”
Japan expert Kent Anderson said that Akita, near the northern tip of the main island of Honshu, was another city that had integrated international students into its economy. It became a foreign-student magnet after another pioneering institution, Akita International University, was established there in 2004.
Akita International University offers a liberal arts-style education with all undergraduate programmes taught in English, and all degree students expected to spend at least one year abroad.
Professor Anderson, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Western Australia, said that dozens of institutions emulating Asia Pacific University and Akita International University had been established across Japan. “It’s not accidental,” he said.
“This is very thought through, as a way to revitalise places. Every small town that’s having a hard time dealing with demographic shift, and everyone leaving it, is looking at these two models.”
The trend reflects a broader focus on short-term migration, as the proportion of foreigners in the Japanese population nudges 2 per cent – up from 1.5 per cent half a decade ago. “If you get off the aircraft in Japan, it feels different [to how] it did 10 years ago,” Professor Anderson said.
“In any city, even quite remote ones, you’ll see foreigners and students working there. Students will have a working visa so they can work in the local coffee shop. We didn’t experience that even 10 years ago.”
As in other countries, the student employment boom has triggered crackdowns. Last month, reports emerged that the government intended to use its national ID system, known as “My Number”, to enforce a 28-hour weekly work limit for foreign students. They were followed by reports that the government would prevent colleges from fast-tracking Japanese-language courses to give students more time to work.