The government’s Council for the Implementation of Education Rebuilding underscored the need to give consideration to the impact of the COVID-19 on study abroad in the proposals it compiled in June. If the number of students who study overseas decreases at an accelerated speed, that could cause a delay in nurturing globally-minded human resources with language skills and intercultural experience.
At a press conference on July 13, Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Hagiuda Koichi said, “We want to promote vaccination so that students who are scheduled to take part in overseas study programs this summer won’t miss the opportunity,” indicating his intention to support vaccination. The ministry introduces universities offering vaccination to these students who can’t be vaccinated at their own schools.
The move was driven by a sense of crisis felt by the government, which wants to prevent the COVID-19 pandemic from further pushing down the number of Japanese students studying overseas. According to the Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO), a Yokohama City-based group that supports studying abroad, 107,000 Japanese students studied abroad in fiscal 2019, almost double the figure recorded in fiscal 2011.
While this might seem to indicate that study abroad is booming in Japan, this is not the case. JASSO’s statistics are based on the number of students reported by Japanese universities and include those who take part in exchange programs without enrolling in specific schools overseas. Two-thirds of the students who studied overseas in fiscal 2019 took part in short-term programs that lasted less than one month, which means their opportunities to acquire language skills and communicate with local people were limited.
But data in which the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and others counted the number of students who are enrolled in foreign universities and other higher educational institutions show different figures.
In fiscal 2018, 58,700 Japanese students studied abroad, down about 30% from the 2004 peak. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) says the figure reflects the number of students who studied overseas basically for more than two years.
Mitarai Shoji, a professor emeritus at Sapporo University and vice president of the America-Japan Society of Hokkaido (AJSH), explains that the number dropped because “Japan has become ‘inward-looking’ and failed to make efforts to send English teachers and young people overseas.”
According to the Japan-U.S. Educational Commission (Fulbright Japan), Japan sent more students to the U.S. than any other country or region from fiscal 1994 to 1997. But Japan was overtaken by such countries as China, India, South Korea, Vietnam, and Taiwan and dropped to eighth from fiscal 2019 to 2020.
Kobayashi Akira, an associate professor at Meiji University who is involved in study abroad programs, points to the economic burden. College tuition keeps rising in the U.S. every year. Kobayashi says: “Even studying at a relatively inexpensive state university costs six to seven million yen annually on average, including living expenses. It used to cost about half as much as this a decade or so ago.”
Japan’s disposable income is much lower than that of other advanced economies. OECD data show Japan ranked last among the Group of Seven major industrialized countries (G7) in terms of per-capita disposable income at 29,000 dollars in 2017.
The government has set a goal of doubling the number of students studying abroad under the OECD standards to 120,000 by fiscal 2022. But there is a limit to what it can do by simply improving scholarship systems.
Kobayashi says: “If Japan wants to increase its globally-minded human resources, companies also need to take responsibility financially. The government and the private sector should jointly establish a fund to significantly strengthen the support system for study abroad.”
Japan’s unique style of job hunting also deprives students of opportunities to study overseas. Japanese firms offer internship programs and hold job fairs when Japanese students in the junior and senior years are learning specialized subjects overseas. A majority of Japanese firms employ new graduates in the spring, which does not coincide with the time of graduation at foreign universities.
One way to resolve the employment issue would be to introduce fall enrollment at universities. In 2020, the former government of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo examined the possibility of introducing “September enrollment” to move the start of the academic year to September at elementary, middle, and high schools in addition to universities. The plan was intended to help schools offset the time lost due to the long closure caused by the pandemic.
The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) concluded that “a certain amount of time is needed to achieve a national consensus” and decided not to introduce September enrollment. Few remarks supportive of September enrollment have been recorded in the Diet minutes since the beginning of 2021.
The Council for the Implementation of Education Rebuilding suggested that “it is important to diversity and allow more flexibility for the timing of entrance and graduation instead of shifting enrollment from April to autumn across the board.” (Abridged)