The internationalisation of Japanese universities

Written by Sanae Samata
May 28, 2021


Written by Sanae Samata
May 28, 2021

Japan is seeking to internationalise its university sector in a bid to boost competitiveness and foster global talent, according to panellists on a webinar hosted by the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan on May 12.

Explaining the rationale behind Japan’s internationalisation drive, Kuni Sato, director of the Office for International Planning at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), said internationalisation is key to improving the nation’s links with the world.

“Japan is facing an ageing society, so to activate not only economic activity but also society, we need to be connected with international society,” he said. “In the past, when Japan had very strong economic power, it was OK to just go with the Japanese way, but while we still have strong influence and power now, we need to be more harmonised with international society. In the process of internationalisation, higher education plays a key role.”

MEXT has launched a range of programs to support university internationalisation, including the Top Global University Project, the Inter-University Exchange Project (Re-Inventing Japan Project), the Project for Promotion of Global Human Resource Development and the Global 30 Project – Establishing University Network for Internationalisation.

Sato said 37 Japanese universities had been selected to lead the internationalisation charge, accounting for around a fifth of the nation’s university students and staff. Among the government’s objectives are to increase the ratio of international students, to boost the number of subjects taught in foreign languages and to encourage more Japanese to study abroad.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Japan hosted approximately 300,000 overseas students annually, while around 100,000 Japanese studied abroad. In contrast, the UK had more than 500,000 overseas students in 2020, of which an increasing number came from China and India.

Government support

Professor Kazuko Suematsu, deputy director of Tohoku University’s Global Learning Center, said government support has been critical in helping the top-rated university to internationalise.

“It took us about 10 years—we had to change little by little. With government funding we were able to invest in teaching facilities and resources to internationalise, but it wasn’t easy,” he said.

In contrast, the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) was “born global,” having been established around a decade ago as a private university that only offers a five-year PhD program in science. More than half its faculty and students are recruited from outside Japan.

“Internationalism was part of the design in creating OIST,” said Dr Misaki Takabayashi, vice dean of OIST’s Graduate School. “We didn’t go through the growing pains of becoming international.”

Takabayashi added that OIST has more than 50 countries represented among its students and staff, providing a “petri dish” of diversity.

Financial importance

Professor Peter Smith, pro-vice chancellor for international projects at University of Southampton, said the UK’s higher education sector has become “hugely internationalised” since the 1990s.

That internationalisation has reaped many benefits. According to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2021, which ranks some 1,500 universities in 93 countries based on performance across teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook, University of Oxford was ranked top. International students make up 41% of its student body..

At the University of Southampton, meanwhile, staff and students hail from 87 countries, with around a fifth of its student population from abroad. Internationalisation has been “critically important” to its research collaboration, including with Asian universities and multinational companies, according to Smith.

“We have a global reputation … it’s very important to us in recruiting staff and students that we’re seen as being active internationally,” he said, while also noting the importance of international students for higher education funding.

“Financially, international students are very important to us. University turnover is around £600 million [¥92.7 billion] of which about £100 million is from international student fees,” he explained.

Study motivations

What influences a student to study abroad? Guy Perring, regional director, Asia, for consultancy i-graduate, suggested there are a range of factors.

“Looking at the international student make-up in Japan, 80% come from China, Vietnam, Nepal, South Korea and Taiwan, so proximity plays a key role,” he said. “But we know from our global data that the key motivation to study overseas is the impact of the qualification on a future career. [Students] are also looking at the reputation of the institution and the country itself in terms of its education system. And finally it’s personal safety and security, and Japan is regarded as one of the safest student destinations.”

He suggested higher education institutions should “build future employability into everything they do” including providing careers counselling, “relevant curricula” and internship opportunities for international students.

“The ability for students to be able to work part-time while studying and have the opportunity to work post-graduation is a key motivation for certain nationalities … I’d urge governments across Asia looking to increase international student numbers to change laws to allow this,” he said.

Elizabeth Gamarra, a PhD student at Tokyo’s International Christian University, said studying in Japan has made her realise the growing level of diversity in the country including Japanese “returnees” from overseas and those of mixed nationality, as well as international students.

Addressing barriers, embracing opportunities

The panellists recognised the impact of COVID-19, which sparked a movement towards online learning and has restricted international student movement.

In the UK, Brexit has affected universities. Professor Smith said the resultant increase in fees for European students could threaten this important market, given that “historically we have had about 25% of our intake from Europe.”

In Japan, two key challenges remain, according to the panellists: finding employment for international students who lack business-level Japanese skill and recruiting staff capable of teaching in a foreign language.

Looking at opportunities, the panellists noted the benefits of the UK’s Turing scheme, which could facilitate more student exchanges between Japan and the UK, and the contribution by the Japan–UK Research and Education Network for Knowledge Economy Initiatives (RENKEI), which promotes bilateral collaboration. Still, the panellists noted the challenge of undertaking increased collaboration with “relatively limited funding.”

Post-pandemic, Takabayashi suggested Japan needs to do more to tap its potential for internationalisation.

“People from different cultural or mixed backgrounds—we need to embrace them as a nation,” she said. “If Japan stays Japanese only, or [based on] traditional Japanese perspectives only, and we just add overseas people for us to become international, Japan will never be truly international. It’s an incredible reckoning time for us to lean on diverse perspectives within Japan to embrace and own it.”