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EDUCATION > Study Abroad

Waseda professor proposes revisiting intrinsic purpose of studying abroad

  • November 27, 2017
  • , Nikkei , p. 16
  • JMH Translation

According to a survey conducted by Waseda University Professor Aya Yoshida, overseas study of less than three months is little effective in improving students’ English proficiency and global understanding.


By Aya Yoshida, professor at Waseda University


Since the mid-2000’s, Japan has been accelerating a push for developing global human resources. This initiative became a policy goal, driven in response to the inward-looking trend among Japanese youth. Since then many universities have been running various programs to send many students abroad. I do not intend to slow down the momentum, but I suggest we all stop and think about why we promote overseas study.


What I would like to introduce here is the results of a survey targeting all students at Waseda University (42,861 students) from Dec. 2016 to Jan. 2017. There were valid responses from 3,085 students. I extracted responses from international students studying at the school and analyzed responses from 2,908 students.


The percentage of students who “had a strong desire to study abroad” at the time of admission was 14.5%. Those who answered “somewhat desire to study abroad” at the time of admission” came to 27.4%. Thus over 40% of students felt they wanted to study abroad at the time of admission. Then how many in fact studied abroad? Of those who answered “had a strong desire to study abroad,” 35% actually took part in overseas study programs. Of them, 26% were abroad for the duration of “six months or longer.”


On the other hand, of those who answered “somewhat desire to study abroad,” only 16% took part in study abroad programs. Out of those who answered “hardly thought about studying abroad” and “had never thought about studying abroad” at the time of admission, only some 10% later changed their minds and studied abroad. The data suggests that studying abroad is not easy for students unless they have a strong desire to do so at the time of admission.


Then what discouraged students who want to study abroad from pursuing their dream? Various surveys show that financial difficulty is the biggest obstacle. This survey also reveals that “unable to study abroad for financial reasons” was the leading answer at 70%. But “not confident in language ability” and “concern about the safety in host country” were also common reasons, at 68% and 61%, respectively.


A look into the correlation between financial difficulty, which is regarded as an external factor, and hesitation to study abroad, an internal factor, discloses that people who cited financial difficulty as the major reason for not studying abroad are also less confident in language ability or more concerned about the safety of the host country in comparison with those who did not cite financial difficulty. Financial difficulty is indeed a serious reason, but the findings suggest that financial difficulty is perhaps a pretext for hesitation to study abroad.


Asked about English proficiency, 53% of those who cited “not confident in language ability” answered “can manage to read English-language books and newspapers.” Only 19% said “can manage in daily life and work in English.” This is a clear indication that students are not confident in their overall English skills, including speaking and listening.


What are popular destinations for students contemplating study abroad? It is easily predicted that English-speaking nations will top the list. But what is particularly interesting is that students who have a strong desire to study abroad tend to select English-speaking nations as their destinations to study. The survey shows that about 40% of those who had a strong desire to study abroad at the time of admission picked the U.S., Europe and Canada, while some 25% of them selected the Oceanian region. 


How much did overseas study benefit students? The table below shows skills that often come up in discussions on skills needed for “global human resources” and students’ self-assessments of skills they feel they have acquired by studying abroad.


Skills students feel they substantially acquired by studying abroad


No study abroad experience

Studied for less than three months

Studied from three to six months

Studied for six months or longer

Cross-cultural awareness





Awareness of own society and culture





English proficiency (equivalent to TOEIC scores of at least 730)





Understanding other nations’ issues





Understanding global issues






The longer they studied overseas, the more skills they feel they have acquired. What is particularly noteworthy is that the percentages spike for people who studied abroad for six months or longer.


On the other hand, those who studied overseas for less than three months feel that they have acquired cross-cultural awareness (willingness to understand, accommodate and respect different cultures and societies) to some extent, but they did not see much-expected improvements in their language skills. When it comes to understating other nations’ issues (their political, economic and social issues) and the understanding of global issues (such as the environment, poverty and security), the percentages are almost the same for those who studied overseas for less than three months and those who had no experience studying overseas.


How should we assess these numbers? Can we conclude that studying abroad is not effective in, for example, improving language skills if the period is short? Or should studying abroad itself be considered effective regardless of the length because it exposes students to things outside their country and inspires them? How we perceive these numbers depends on how we define the purpose of overseas study.  


According to the Japan Student Services Organization, the number of Japanese students studying abroad is on the rise, but 60% of them remain abroad for less than one month. There are various reasons for the short length of stay, such as the economic burden, how to coordinate with classes at their home universities, and the admission capacity of overseas schools where they want to study. But studying abroad is neither for sightseeing nor leisure. So it becomes necessary to discuss what students should learn by studying overseas and what preparations they should make.


As overseas study programs are the focus of an increasing number of students going abroad, we must revisit their intrinsic purpose. (Abridged)


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