By Seiji Matsuto
Japanese universities’ international exchange programs are at a standstill due to the coronavirus outbreak. Countries popular with Japanese students, such as the U.S. and Australia, have suspended entry since March 2020. Moreover, students from foreign universities cannot enter Japan. Universities are implementing various measures, including rushing to introduce online study abroad support programs.
A Japanese student in a joint “online study abroad program” sponsored by Kansai University and University Mobility in Asia and the Pacific (UMAP) expressed “gratitude” for the program. The student had planned to study abroad during the summer vacation but could not go because of the outbreak.
In the program, Japanese and foreign students learn together using a video conferencing system, guided by foreign lecturers. In five sessions through September 2020, the students conduct group discussions and give presentations on such themes as the coronavirus outbreak and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Nineteen Japanese students and 122 foreign students are participating in the program. According to Kansai University, “because UMAP was behind the program, we had more overseas applicants than we could accept.” The program aims for students to build friendships through exchange. The university hopes that it will stimulate international exchange among students at various universities.
Study abroad programs at Japanese universities can be broadly categorized into long-term study of over six months and short-term programs during summer vacation in July and August. This year, however, overseas travel has been suspended since March, and universities had to call back students who were studying abroad. A majority of universities have already suspended their fall semester exchange programs, which normally attract many participants.
Sophia University, which conducts exchange programs with 370 overseas universities and 400 participating students, decided to suspend its fall program. Instead, the university has made efforts to enable students to take online classes offered by foreign universities that partner in its exchange programs. Kazumi Sato, director of Sophia University’s Office of Global Education and Collaboration, says that the university’s preparations to implement classes using Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) was helpful in [introducing online classes]. COIL is a learning system where Japanese students and students at foreign universities learn together using online resources.
Under the assumption that the coronavirus outbreak will not be resolved soon, Sophia University plans to test a new online study abroad program in the spring of 2021. In addition to having students take courses offered by partner universities in its study abroad programs, Sophia plans to offer a virtual “study tour” where students can view and get a feel for the campuses of some of the partner universities.
Some 250 Meiji University students had planned to study abroad in fall 2020. Meiji will enable these students to take and earn credits for online courses offered by about 260 partner universities in lieu of traveling overseas. Some students have decided to cancel their study abroad plans, but many “would still like to study abroad by deferring their plans,” according to Takayuki Kanno of Meiji University’s Headquarters of International Collaboration.
Meiji University will reportedly survey the situation in each partner university’s country and determine the status of exchange programs from the 2020 academic year onward.
Support for international students is essential for universities striving to globalize. Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University began an initiative to regularly distribute food on campus to support international students facing hardship.
Rikkyo University created a system to enable the 82 international students who are unable to enter Japan to take courses online. There are 750 international students at Rikkyo University. Satoshi Fujieda at Rikkyo University International Center says that the university would like to fully explain to international students the support systems available to them, including financial aid.