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More understanding needed

for international faculty

The ability to attract international faculty or researchers is a vital element of internationalisation of higher education. Japan is no exception.

Soon after World War II when Japan introduced a US model of general education and learning English and other foreign languages became a compulsory part of undergraduate studies at Japanese universities, a large number of language teachers, mainly from English-speaking countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada were hired by Japanese universities.

Since the early 1980s when the Japanese government issued a law to allow non-Japanese nationals to be hired as tenured professors even in national and local public universities, the number of international faculty has expanded rapidly.

According to national statistics, the number of full-time international faculty at four-year universities alone increased from 940 (0.9% of all faculty) in 1979 to 9,187 (nearly 5% of all faculty) in 2020.

Further, the demographic profile of international faculty has also changed.

For example, according to the 2017 national survey of 4,076 full-time international faculty at Japanese universities conducted by the author, the largest proportion came from mainland China (22%), followed by the US (19%), South Korea (13%), the UK (8%) and others (25%). This is different from the composition of international faculty in the early 1980s when the largest number came from the US, followed by the UK and other English-speaking countries.

Different perceptions

According to our recent research study, “Challenges facing international faculty at Japanese Universities: Main findings from the 2017 national survey”, although more than half of those questioned seemed to be satisfied with their current employment situation, working conditions and professional environment and nearly 60% of them believed that they would continue to work in Japan, a greater percentage of them answered positively to the statements “the Japanese academic market is closed to international faculty members” and “in general, Japanese faculty members are indifferent to their international colleagues”.

And while only 20% of respondents disagreed with the statement, “attracting international faculty members is only intended to increase quantitative indicators of internationalisation at Japanese universities”, more than half of them explicitly agreed with it.

No significant differences in perceptions of the closed nature of the Japanese academic market could be found when it came to the nationality of international faculty. However, their views of their relationships with local faculty and the role international faculty play in the internationalisation of their institutions varied by nationality.

For example, while Chinese faculty had a higher negative response to the statement, “in general, Japanese faculty members are indifferent to their international colleagues”, British faculty were the most likely to agree with it, followed by US faculty, Korean faculty and faculty from other countries and regions.

Further, US faculty were most likely to agree with the statement “Japanese faculty members regard international faculty members as temporary visitors”, followed by British faculty, faculty from other countries and regions and Chinese faculty.

By contrast, only Korean faculty were likely to disagree with it.

When it came to the statement, “attracting international faculty members is only intended to increase the quantitative indicators of internationalisation of Japanese universities”, British faculty were more likely to agree with it, followed by those from the US, mainland China and Korea.

It is evident that clear differences exist in international faculty’s perceptions of Japan’s strategies and the realities concerning internationalisation of higher education at both institutional and country of origin level.

Compared to both Chinese and Korean faculty, it appears that US and British faculty were more negative about Japan’s internationalisation strategy.

Partly this is because a huge number of international faculty from the US, the UK and other English-speaking countries are primarily engaged in delivering language programmes for undergraduate students; more of them are hired on a fixed-term contract; they seem to have much heavier workloads; and more of them have a lower knowledge of the Japanese language, especially written Japanese.

In contrast, more Chinese and Korean faculty are present in the hard sciences; more of them are concerned with research activities; and more of them have a good knowledge of the Japanese language.

Impact of COVID-19

There is little doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has also impacted international faculty’s academic activities and lives. Some findings from the author’s recent semi-structured interviews with a dozen international faculty members at Japan’s national and private universities suggest that the pandemic has had a definite and considerable impact on them.

However, the effect varies greatly depending on their country of origin, disciplines, expected work roles and employment situation.

For example, compared to domestic faculty, the global travel bans have made it extremely difficult for international faculty to return to their home countries to visit their parents or relatives abroad as they used to do. Neither could their parents, spouses, relatives or children come to Japan and visit them.

This has made many of them, especially those from Western countries such as the US and the UK, feel more isolated, lonely and stressed because most of them did not graduate from Japan’s universities and very few of them came to Japan before they were hired by their current universities.

They also had to overcome time differences to communicate with their relatives and friends via phone or other virtual means.

Specifically, newly recruited young international faculty from Western countries seemed to have suffered more stress in both their work and personal lives.

This is particularly true in the case of international faculty in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. They had to stay at home because they were not allowed to work on campus or in laboratories. For those who cannot speak Japanese and have little cultural knowledge of the country, there is less interaction with local colleagues outside the workplace or with local people and they certainly felt more depressed.

In addition, as most of the language teachers who were newly hired at Japan’s universities were not familiar with newly introduced online teaching and learning systems and there is a lack of sufficient technical and language support, they had more difficulty using these systems in their teaching activities.

Finally, apart from researchers and language teachers, a large number of international faculty are associate professors or professors specially appointed on specific programmes such as the national Global 30 Project of 2010 and Top Global University Project of 2014 or on institutional programmes.

In most cases, they are expected to undertake any activities which cannot be accomplished by their Japanese colleagues, help enhance the international reputation of their current universities and are active in carrying out international activities based on fixed-term contracts.

Due to the global spread of the pandemic, there have been fewer and fewer international activities between their universities and foreign partner institutions, so many of them will have to search for new positions when their contracts expire.

Understanding and inclusion

If Japan wants to further diversify the composition of its faculty from the perspective of internationalisation, enhance the quality of its teaching and research and raise the international dimension and global competitiveness of its higher education system, attracting international faculty should not merely feel like a means to increase the quantitative indicators of internationalisation at Japanese universities.

Rather, more favourable and effective strategies should be developed to enable international faculty to feel that they are real colleagues and Japan’s government, their universities, colleagues and local community should understand the unique challenges they face and take targeted and flexible measures to help them find solutions to the issues they encounter in their academic work and daily lives.

Futao Huang is professor at the Research Institute for Higher Education, Hiroshima University, Japan.