The Japanese government has long strived to increase the number of international students studying in Japan, but in recent years the government has also concentrated significant efforts on increasing the number of Japanese students going overseas.
According to data from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, compiled from the OECD, UNESCO, Institute of International Education and other data sources, there has been a long downtrend of Japanese students enrolling at foreign institutions: from 82,945 in 2004 to 58,720 in 2018.
Nevertheless, while Japanese student enrolments at foreign institutions have been on a downtrend, there has been an uptrend of Japanese students studying overseas on exchange programmes over the past decade.
The Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO) data for the academic year of 2018 recorded 70,541 Japanese students going overseas on inter-institutional exchange programmes. This number is approximately three times higher than 10 years ago.
This uptrend was made possible, among other factors, by the increased volume of scholarships and financial aid provided by the government and private sectors.
A more granular look at the JASSO data reveals that this uptrend is resting heavily on very short-term exchange programmes that are no longer than one month long. Out of the 70,541 students on exchange programmes, as many as 61% were on very short-term programmes.
As there is a continuously increasing demand for these very short-term programmes, it is safe to anticipate that they will play a significant role in the governmental initiatives to increase the number of Japanese students studying abroad.
Prior to the outbreak of the pandemic in early 2020, Japanese higher education internationalisation initiatives seemed to be on track and moving in a positive direction.
However, the pandemic impacted international mobility and forced tighter measures and regulations which, in turn, had a negative effect on the Japanese government’s higher education internationalisation initiatives and efforts to increase the number of both international students and domestic students studying overseas.
In such circumstances, universities needed to begin exploring how to continue to offer their students global learning opportunities in the post-pandemic period.
As part of this study, we carried out national surveys of higher education institutions in Japan from February to May 2021, and Japanese exchange students from December 2021 to January 2022.
The surveys aimed to examine attitudes towards study abroad exchange programmes from both institutional and student perspectives. We focused especially on inter-institutional exchange programmes since they have been a key contributor to Japan’s higher education internationalisation initiatives.
In addition, we also wanted to examine how institutions and students would decide whether or not to resume study abroad programmes.
Some 179 universities and 317 Japanese students responded to the survey. In 2021, approximately half of the universities were not able to envision what kind of student exchange programmes they would consider designing and delivering when student exchange programmes could resume at the end of the pandemic crisis.
The survey found that 9.3% of those who responded saying that they could envision future programmes were in favour of on-site student exchanges, while 72.8% supported blended formats, combining on-site and online programmes.
On the other hand, the student survey data showed that students were overwhelmingly willing to return to study on site as long as higher education institutions could offer their students online learning opportunities as an alternative form of delivery.
They considered that in addition to classroom experience, outside the classroom experiences while studying abroad could significantly enrich their overall experience.
While many embraced the ideas of student exchange programmes as blended learning, the question of the quality assurance of such programmes and the student learning outcomes remained open. The debate over whether online study abroad can provide students with the same level of knowledge as on-site programmes has not been fully resolved. Granted, both online and on-site learning offer benefits and challenges.
Future study abroad programmes
It is now more than ever extremely important to gain a better understanding of both those benefits and challenges and use their strengths to design and deliver solid future study abroad programmes. Moreover, it is important to continue to take into account the students’ voices, and design programmes in which on-site learning focuses on experiences that would complement the online learning component.
Although Japanese students were hoping to pursue on-site international learning opportunities even during the pandemic, strict border control policies imposed by the government ended up depriving institutions from accessing their existing partnerships and students from studying abroad.
After the outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020, outbound programmes for Japanese students came to an abrupt halt. However, in the following year, many non-Japanese higher education institutions gradually resumed their study abroad programmes and accepted Japanese students.
As such, outbound students were able to leave Japan and engage in on-site international study experiences, while international students hoping to come to Japan found themselves stuck at their home institutions and forced to take online courses offered by Japanese universities.
Japan has adhered to a stricter policy on entries of international visitors than on departures of Japanese nationals.
From a quick look at the Japanese government’s border restriction policies and the international student entry statistics from the Immigration Services Agency of Japan in 2020 and 2021, it seems like the only time international students were able to enter Japan was from October to December 2020.
The government did not ease the immigration and border control policies until November 2021 but closed the border again at the end of that month, to the enormous disappointment of thousands of international students waiting to pursue study abroad in Japan.
Such strict immigration policies have created an imbalance between Japanese students studying abroad and international students coming to Japan.
In turn, this imbalance has the potential to lead to situations in which Japanese universities lose their partnerships with international universities and agencies, which may deprive Japanese students from study abroad opportunities.
In addition, the perceived unreliability of immigration policies could lead to international students no longer considering Japan as a valid study abroad destination.
On 17 February 2022, the Japanese government made an announcement that it would finally ease border restrictions. Its decision to open the door to international students could have a positive impact on future internationalisation initiatives and even impact the ability of Japanese exchange students to obtain international learning opportunities.
It is our responsibility as international educators to keep exploring what the new normal of study abroad programmes might be in response to the changing reality of the pandemic and in accordance with students’ demands and expectations.
The core preoccupation of international educators before, during and after the pandemic can only be how we can create better and more productive international learning experiences and opportunities for our students.
Yukiko Ishikura is an associate professor at the Center for International Education and Exchange, Osaka University, Japan. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Sachihiko Kondo is a professor at the Center for International Education and Exchange, Osaka University, Japan. E-mail: email@example.com. The research referred to in this paper is supported by JSPS KAKENHI (Grant Number 20KK0052).