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By Suvendrini Kakuchi for University Word News:

Japan’s education ministry has said it is stepping up efforts to bring the number of international students enrolled in Japanese universities back up to the pre-pandemic level of over 300,000 students, as well as boosting the number of Japanese students going overseas within the next five years.

On 23 June the ministry released a report by an expert panel restating the importance of international students to Japan. The report, Proposal for Global Policy on Higher Education, pointed out that foreign students play a crucial role in the globalisation of Japanese universities and provide skilled talent in an ageing society that is expected to see a drop in worker numbers in the future.

A ministry survey of Japanese businesses, reported in Japan Times, a leading news daily, pointed to a lack of engineers, particularly civil, mechanical, electrical and communication network engineers, as well as hardware and software programmers in the country.

Eiji Watanabe, in charge of university internationalisation at the ministry, explained that the acceptance of foreign students will continue but will follow recommendations from the expert panel which calls for a strategy to target particular regions and countries to attract students, and specific fields of study.

Competitive skills

“Acceptance of foreign students, including doctoral level [students] and researchers, should be based on their contribution to support Japan’s development. We need students who possess highly competitive skills especially in areas such as information technology,” he told University World News.

Local media reported that Japan will also expand the ‘Leap for Tomorrow’ Study Abroad Initiative, a public-private partnership to encourage Japanese students to go overseas, funded by individual and corporate donations.

Japan’s pandemic travel ban severely affected students coming from abroad, with that number dropping from more than 310,000 in fiscal year 2019 to 242,000 in fiscal year 2021, and also dramatically affected the number of Japanese students going overseas.

The number of outbound students dropped from about 107,000 in fiscal year 2019 to just 1,400 in fiscal year 2020. The ministry’s aim is to get outbound student numbers back up to 100,000 by 2027.

According to the official Japan Student Services Organization, around 242,444 foreign students have arrived in Japan since March this year, with 110,000 still waiting to enter. Japan relaxed its stringent border entry measures after domestic and international criticism.

Overseas students with Japanese visas were forced to give up on their plans to study in Japan, with some changing their destinations to universities in other countries such as South Korea.

Chinese enrolment

Chinese students comprised 44% of Japan’s 2020 higher education enrolment of 279,597, followed by students from Vietnam. But in May the government requested greater security from universities in relation to foreign students and scholars to prevent technology leaks, a move that some believe could affect future enrolments from China.

The easing of border controls in Japan has resulted in university campuses starting to buzz with life again after a long hiatus related to the pandemic, according to university officials.

“We are back to normal,” said Kaoru Natsuda, dean of admissions at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU) at Beppu on Japan’s southern island of Kyushu. He was referring to the return of more than 1,000 students since May, after a delay of almost two years since their enrolment in 2020. Only around 50 students are still awaiting entry.

APU will also start physical classes for all subjects in the fall semester to meet demands from students for an active university calendar.

Nationals from South Korea, China and countries in Southeast Asia such as Indonesia and Vietnam make up most of the 2,300 undergraduate students enrolled at the university.

Universities welcome the influx of international students after having dealt with a string of official policies that shut out foreigners including students to restrict COVID-19 infections. Universities such as APU that have large student populations from abroad were forced to increase online classes in order to avoid dropouts.

“A key lesson from the pandemic is that our students, both Japanese and foreign, want physical classes because by meeting others they can deepen their knowledge of Japan and other cultures,” said Natsuda.

He added that, on the other hand, the university is now more acutely aware of the need to boost the use of IT for study in order to face another potential crisis that could restrict the movements of students again.