On 25 May the Japanese government lifted its state of emergency, a month and a half after it was declared. The government’s soft or ‘halfway’ approach to ‘staying at home’ and ‘social distancing’ with no legal punishment had been frequently questioned. However, mainly as a result of citizens voluntarily obeying public health measures, the country has somehow managed to minimise the damage caused by the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A similar thing is happening with regard to international student mobility. Just before the outbreak, Japan celebrated the achievement of its target of 300,000 international students which had been announced 12 years previously.
According to Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO), the number of students at Japanese universities sent abroad on student exchange and study abroad programmes has also almost doubled over the past decade. Just like other countries around the world, Japanese universities are now also facing a serious drop in the number of international students on campus, due to border restrictions and campus closures.
However, there are substantial differences in Japan’s approach to international students, at least compared to countries which are heavily reliant on tuition income from international students. Japanese universities and the Japanese government are trying to be supportive to international students not because of commercial incentives but because of social attitudes towards equal treatment and how international students are regarded.
Higher education not an export industry
Although there is a discussion among policy-makers and university leaders, Japan’s universities are not currently allowed to differentiate their tuition fee levels based on nationality. Also, in order to protect international students from exploitation, the government limits the working hours of international students during term time to 28 hours per week and class attendance is strictly monitored, even at language schools.
However, according to government statistics published in the School Basic Survey, 83% of international students on undergraduate programmes and 34% on postgraduate programmes study at private universities, whose main financial income is from student tuition fees.
Nevertheless, universities and society generally are mostly positive about international students, recognising the value of providing an international experience to their home students and society. Although the numbers are not high, around 57% of international students affiliated to Japanese universities receive some form of public or private scholarship or fellowship.
The loss of international students due to the COVID-19 pandemic does not necessarily amount to a fall in income for universities in the Far East. Japan, China, South Korea and others have set targets for international students more for the purposes of cultural diplomacy and attracting talent.
Thus, the governments in the region have created policies to support universities that provide quality education for international students from developing and developed countries and have promoted active campaigns around scholarships for them.
Supporting international students in difficulty
Like Korea and China, Japan has restarted its economic and social activities in the context of ‘the new normal’. They are discussing reopening national borders, first for business travellers and researchers. It will take much longer for students to be able to enter and leave these countries freely.
According to the survey results of the Japan Association for International Student Education, it is estimated that around half of international students who planned to study at Japanese universities from the spring term are still in their home countries and universities are trying to reach them through online classes.
Support for those international students currently inside Japan is one of the biggest challenges for universities because they are one of the most vulnerable groups in terms of study and social life, mental health and, most importantly, finance.
The state of emergency applied to the whole nation has hit the lives of university students in Japan. It was declared at the beginning of the new academic calendar. Many students had signed new contracts of residence. Opportunities for part-time jobs, such as language tutoring and working in hotels, restaurants and shops suddenly vanished.
Many public and private universities, including my university Tohoku University, are providing emergency support packages, including financial support, free wi-fi access and job opportunities at campus, partly responding to student campaigns around tuition fees for online-only education provision.
The government has also started providing financial support to students facing financial difficulty under the Emergency Student Support Handout scheme which also applies to international students. For international students, however, the government has set eligibility criteria, such as a limitation of working hours, a good grade point average and 80% class attendance.
These criteria are applied only to international students and this has been the cause of public debate. NGOs supporting international students and residents have protested, saying the government should ensure equal treatment of home and international students.
The government explains that these criteria are the same as for other national fellowships targeted at international students. At the same time, the government has announced the ‘flexible’ application of these criteria in order to help support students regardless of their nationality. The universities make a list of the students who apply to the scheme in order of priority. JASSO makes the final decision following a screening process.
It should be noted that it is rare for a national government to financially support international students who suffer financial difficulty, especially in a merit-blind manner. However, Japanese society, as well as university stakeholders, believe that international students should be socially supported because they are important members of the community.
The same idea applies to another governmental scheme, Special Cash Payments, which grants JPY100,000 (US$910) in emergency cash to every resident, including non-Japanese citizens. International students who are registered as residents can also access this support scheme.
What countries are attractive in the new normal
Almost all major countries have closed their national borders to new international students. Although some may reopen their borders soon, international students are likely to be, on average, much less wealthy than in the past and the part-time job opportunities they had alongside their studies will also decline.
As for online transnational education provision, Japan and other non-English speaking countries in East Asia are not globally competitive. Their strategies for attracting international students need to be reconsidered with regard to online, on-demand and mostly English-based cross-border education provision.
We are still not sure when in-person student mobility will recover, and which and what types of countries and universities will most attract international students in the future. However, at least Japanese universities and society in general are willing to accept international students, even those needing financial support, because they know that a connection to the global community is essential for the sustainable development of their universities and society.
Akiyoshi Yonezawa is professor and vice-director of the International Strategy Office of Tohoku University, Japan.