Restarting International Study in Japan in the Post-COVID Era

Society Culture Education

Strict border controls during the COVID-19 pandemic have seen international student numbers plummet in Japan, while there has been an explosive increase in virtual learning online, leading to a reconsideration of the true significance of studying abroad. In this article, Satō Yuriko looks at ways to increase the value of study in Japan for international students, and suggests policies for bringing them back to Japan after the pandemic.

A Blow to Study in Japan

International students are crucial investments in the future. They develop into the skilled human resources essential to a knowledge-based society, and can also serve as a vital source of soft power. Countries around the world are increasingly competing to attract overseas students, and Japan is no exception. For the last decade or so, the government has been working to attract more students under a government initiative to boost international student numbers from 120,000 to 300,000 between 2008 and 2020.

But tightened border controls and restrictions on international entry during the COVID-19 pandemic have changed all this. At the end of 2021, around 150,000 would-be international students were still in limbo, unable to enter the country despite holding visas. These restrictions have hit Japanese language schools particularly hard. In a survey conducted in February 2022 by an association of six major Japanese language education organizations, 25% of schools said they risked going out of business within three months unless the situation improved.

Following the partial easing of the restrictions in March, Japanese language schools are now hurrying to welcome new students again, but many schools have let teachers go, and it will be some time before they are functioning at full capacity again. Also, considerable numbers of students have given up plans to come to Japan and have already started their studies in other countries. Restoring international student numbers to pre-pandemic levels will take time.

This fall in the numbers of students at Japanese language schools is likely to lead to a corresponding decline in the number of international students at universities, graduate schools, and vocational colleges one or two years from now. According to the Report on the Basic Survey on Schools for 2019, conducted by the Ministry for Education, Sports, Culture, Science, and Technology, international students made up just 3.4% of the overall student body at undergraduate universities, but 20.7% at graduate school level. The same year, international students represented at least half the student body at 195 vocational colleges around the country. These figures mean that for some vocational colleges and graduate schools, the blow caused by the recent collapse in the number of international students could prove to be fatal.

International students who entered the country before the onset of the pandemic have also been affected. Many have been forced to change their post-graduation plans owing to reduced hiring in the industries where they hoped to find employment.

According to a survey by Disco, a major recruitment information company, in 2021 the ratio of graduating Japanese students who had received job offers was down by 7.5% compared to the previous year. For international students, the equivalent figure was down by 22.4%. A survey by the Japan Student Services Organization on graduation career paths found that whereas 36.9% of graduating international students found jobs in Japan in 2019, this figure fell to 31.1% in 2020. One reason was that many students hoped to find work in hotels and tourism, a sector that was hit particularly hard by the pandemic.

In the context of a rapidly declining working-age population, the Japan Revitalization Strategy 2016 set out a target to have 50% of foreign students find employment in Japan after graduation, recognizing them as important international human resources. The falling number of international students and the declining proportion of international students finding work in Japan after graduation is likely to have a negative impact in many ways, hampering companies’ ability to expand overseas and develop products for overseas markets, and making it harder for the country to attract inbound tourists and secure the necessary human resources in fields like nursing care.

Balancing Online and Real-Life Programs

Online learning increased massively during the pandemic, and is reshaping ideas of what it means to study abroad. The Collaborative Online International Learning project started by the State University of New York in 2006 caught on in Japan during the pandemic, when it became impossible for international students to travel from their own countries. Even since the easing of restrictions, online tools are useful for orientation sessions and follow-up hearings, and universities both in Japan and in the students’ own countries are increasingly using such tools for these purposes before students come to Japan and after they go home.

Massive Open Online Courses have also become popular. In 2021, a total of 950 universities were offering around 20,000 courses and seminars to a cumulative total of around 220 million people worldwide.

There has been progress in tapping the potential of online tuition for virtual “study abroad” programs. In the Netherlands, the Delft University of Technology has teamed up with 11 leading universities from around the world to offer 16 MOOC courses for reciprocal credits recognized by all participating institutions.

The credits and qualifications obtained by participating in online courses of this kind are called “micro-credentials.” Crediting institutions increasingly issue digital “badges” to show that a student has completed a course, making it easier for students, universities, and employers to keep track of credentials from online learning. And it is often claimed that online tuition is particularly well suited to knowledge-transmission classes.

What then is the real value of real-life, face-to-face study abroad programs for students?

According to the Global Student Experience survey for 2021 carried out by i-graduate, the world’s largest student survey company, the top factor influencing international students’ choice of where to study was “future career impact.” Factors such as “usefulness of studies in getting a good job” and “availability of work experience and internships” were also important in affecting whether students recommended a country to younger students asking for advice.

In a survey on privately funded overseas students carried out by the Japan Student Services Organization in 2019, students’ main objective in study in Japan was to “obtain a degree or other qualification,” followed by “find work in Japan,” and “acquire the necessary knowledge and skills for employment.” The most commonly cited reasons for choosing to study in Japan were: “interest in Japanese society and life in Japan,” “desire to study Japanese language and culture,” and “attractive learning and research opportunities at Japanese universities and other educational institutions.”

These findings make it clear that in order to make studying in Japan attractive to more students, it will be necessary to provide the kinds of learning opportunities that international students want. These include more opportunities for practical learning and internships; immersive hands-on study of Japanese society, culture, and Japanese language; and distinctly Japanese learning and research opportunities not easily available elsewhere.

The Limits of Remote Learning

Many of the skills that employers value when considering hiring international students—Japanese ability, communication skills, and ability to assimilate and be a team-player—are more difficult to acquire through online teaching. This is why it is vital to strengthen collaboration with companies and communities to promote real-life study experiences of genuine Japan for international students.

Japanese manufacturing excels at what is known as suriawase, a traditional development process that emphasizes harmonization between manufacturers and suppliers. A lot of this know-how takes the form of tacit knowledge that can only be shared through human relationships and long-term contacts. Tacit knowledge is typical of the Japanese communication style, which tends to value context over language, and can also be seen in the culture of many Japanese organizations, and in human relationships. If students are going to find jobs and work be professionally successful in Japan, it will be vital to provide them with opportunities to acquire this kind of tacit knowledge.

Some analysts suggest that informal education including internships and extracurricular activities can be useful ways of providing opportunities to learn tacit knowledge. The key will be to link up with companies and local communities to increase opportunities for hands-on learning and to increase exchanges with Japanese students. In Japan, many internships last just a single day, but Professor Kumon Takashi of Asia University in Tokyo says that there is a need to increase medium- and long-term internships for international students. Offering opportunities for longer training, while continuing to make short-term exchanges and training available as entry-level options, will be essential to improving students’ understanding of tacit knowledge.

It will also be important for national and local governments to do more to support and coordinate collaboration between companies and schools. One government-run career development scheme for international students supports university efforts to assist international students looking for jobs, in collaboration with companies and local governments. To date, 15 programs have been chosen for support. Meanwhile, Aichi Prefecture has run a project since 2018 to encourage international students to settle and work in the region. As well as organizing exchanges and internships that bring companies and international students together, the project aims to build a stronger network between international students who have returned to their own countries and regional companies looking to expand overseas.

Combining Work and Study

Since 2011, there has been a rapid increase in the numbers of people coming to Japan from countries that do not use kanji like Vietnam and Nepal. Many of these students worked part-time jobs alongside their studies. For young people from these countries, which have some of the lowest income levels in Asia, tuition fees in Japan cost several times the average national income in their home countries. Japanese law allows international students to work up to 28 hours a week on a student visa. This is more than is allowed in most other popular study abroad destinations, and it is likely that this is one of the factors that leads some of these students to choose to study in Japan.

Since the recent introduction of a new Specified Skills (tokutei ginō) program, which allows lower-skilled workers to come to Japan on working visas, the Immigration Services Agency has taken to carrying out strict checks on international students. Those who are working longer than 28 hours a week often find it impossible to extend their visas. In addition to this, the economic impact of the pandemic has seen many students lose their part-time jobs, and many have faced economic hardship.

In a 2020 survey on international students in Kanagawa prefecture carried out by the local international foundation, 63% of students said the pandemic had had an impact on their part-time jobs (with 20% losing their jobs, 16% facing long-term shutdowns of the business, and 27% seeing a reduction in shifts). Fully 75% said they had experienced financial difficulties. The same year, the Japan Chapter of the Nepalese Association for Overseas Residents conducted a survey on students from Nepal, in which 87% of students said the pandemic had adversely affected their employment, and 93% said they had experienced financial difficulties.

Shifting to more hands-on, practical education by increasing collaboration with companies would be one way both to make students less dependent on their part-time jobs and to train human resources with the kinds of skills that companies want. In Germany, for example, applied sciences universities offer a hybrid education that combines work experience and classroom education. Students sign a professional apprenticeship contract with a company, and while getting paid for their work at the company, alternate between on-the-job training and classroom study of related subjects at their university. These schools have proved popular both with employers who want to hire well-trained employees with a good understanding of their jobs, and with students eager to improve their chances of employment. The number of students enrolled at such school increased nearly fourfold between 2007 and 2018. Japan, too, should do more to increase the opportunities for practical training at vocational colleges (where 29% of international students were enrolled in 2021), and look at providing practical training with financial support from companies.

Possible Models

As I have argued, in order to make Japan attractive as a study destination, it will be necessary to offer programs that lead to jobs and open up realistic career paths for students. This can be done by providing education and training in collaboration with companies and local governments and by providing more support during the job hunt process. It will also be important to provide an effective and efficient study experience by combining online and in-person tuition.

Based on this understanding, the Japanese government has established the Japan Virtual Campus, Japan’s first ever online international education platform. This is an attempt to share educational resources among universities and provide internationally competitive content, while offering attractive educational programs that make the most of Japan’s strengths and attractive qualities. Since March 2022, nearly 40 universities, including Tsukuba University and International Christian University, have been providing a wide range of information and educational content online for international students. Courses in business Japanese are particularly popular, showing the high demand that exists for job search support, Japanese language education, and online learning.

Japanese language schools too will probably need to find a way to offer training and tuition that incorporates online learning in the future. Universities and other institutions of higher education are also being forced to reexamine their business models to find a way of attracting international students and securing a regular income stream from tuition.

Balancing online and face-to-face tuition will be a major challenge for many universities and schools in the future, including an assessment of the potential effect of online teaching in terms of raising a school’s international profile. I think the following two cases provide useful hints for thinking about the future of study abroad programs in Japan in the years to come.

One is the expansion overseas of a new type of vocational college known as kōtō senmon gakkō or kōsen (colleges of technology). These are five-year schools that accept junior high school graduates, providing specialized training for young people looking to work as engineers and in other technical jobs. In 2009, OECD published a laudatory review of Japan’s kōsen schools, that raised international awareness. In the middle of the 2010s, a program began to provide support for “kōsen courses” established in vocational colleges overseas, and Kosen schools opened in countries like Mongolia and Thailand. Providing practical training that matches the needs of local employers, these schools boast high employment rates for graduates, and also open up a path to study in Japan.

The second possible model is the Japanese language training offered by Seifu Institute of Information Technology in Osaka in collaboration with an IT university in India. This program provides Japanese language training for people with aspirations to study in Japan. It offers a viable business model by matching the needs of people both in Japan and India. There is considerable potential for Japanese schools and universities to expand overseas, linking up with local institutions to recruit students and offer education. This could be one way to bring talented students and human resources to Japan.

The same institute is also proactive about accepting people who are trying to escape the war in Ukraine, and is looking for ways to provide online tuition to people in the country. As the global geopolitical situation becomes increasingly unstable, and growing numbers of refugees are forced to flee their own countries, international study is attracting attention as one way of offering at least temporary refuge and new opportunities. I hope that the national and local governments will collaborate with refugee support groups and companies and that progress will be made on accepting more refugees and other people in need to Japan.

(Banner photo © Pixta. Courtesy of the Japanese Language School Affiliated with Chūō College of Technology)

Japanese language education international students exchange students COVID-19