Internationalising Japan’s Higher Education Sector

Picture: Nakajima Library at Akita International University.

Australia & Japan in the Region

Volume 8, No 2, February 2020

January and February decides the fate of Japanese students preparing for university entrance exams. This year’s high schoolers have been through a particularly stressful period because of policy changes concerning English in the entrance exam. In 2013, the Prime Minister’s Office published a policy document titled ‘Japan is Back’. The strategy included the introduction of private English exams (like IELTS and TOEFL) aimed at revitalising Japanese society by nurturing ‘global human resources’.

Rates of English competency in Japan are generally low. Many people believe this stems from the education system (which concentrates on teaching grammar and reading) and the university entrance exam (which ignores students’ speaking and writing skills). The introduction of private English exams was justified as a means of assessing students’ English skills comprehensively.

The idealistic policy was based on the assumption that comprehension skills will improve if university entrance exams focus on assessing students’ listening and writing skills. Yet there has been no evidence-based discussion to support this assumption. Changing the entrance exam will not directly lead to educational innovation or skill development — more fundamental changes, such as class-size reduction and teacher training, are required.

The use of private English exams has also been widely criticised as problematic in terms of access to testing locations and higher examination fees. Public concerns concentrate on equal access to education — many fear that the exams could widen economic and geographic disparity.

The private English exams had originally been scheduled to be introduced in the 2020 academic year, with second-year high school students suffering the greatest impact from the government’s abrupt decision. But on 24 October 2019 Koichi Hagiuda, the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, appeared on television and said that students should compete for university spots ‘in accordance with their financial standing’. His comments ignited public opposition and he eventually had to postpone the introduction of the private English exams. Many universities had however already started to introduce the exams early, as it counts for additional points to their own entrance exams. Universities were completely thrown by this last-minute change and were urged to revise their plans for the coming spring.

Changing the entrance exam will not directly lead to educational innovation or skill development — more fundamental changes, such as class-size reduction and teacher training, are required.

Like this private English test turmoil, the internationalisation of Japanese universities is also facing difficulties. The Japanese government plans to push more than 10 Japanese universities into the top 100 in world university rankings within the next decade. The government founded the Top Global University Project in 2014 to provide intensive support for building world-class and innovative universities, known as Super Global Universities (SGUs). 37 universities, including seven former imperial national universities, have been selected.

In reality, SGUs have struggled to realise their proposed internationalisation plans because the funding they received fell short of the amount they applied for. The allocation also rapidly decreased within five years. This kind of time-limited funding is sometimes referred to as a doku-manju (poison bun) since it appears beneficial at first but can have a fatal impact on the institution, especially after the funding period is over.

Nationalism is implicit in Japan’s approach to internationalisation. Internationalisation is necessary to ‘nurture human resources who can fight the world’, the Japan is Back document reads, alluding to a person with a solid Japanese identity who is capable of competing in the global market and contributing to Japan’s economy. The rise of internationally focused Japan studies programs exemplifies internationalisation. This new style of Japanology is typically instructed in English and targets both domestic and international students. To be globally competitive, Japanese students are supposed to have comprehensive knowledge about Japan along with the communicative skills needed to negotiate their own interests.

The logic of learning about Japan to promote Japan’s internationalisation now seems to prevail in universities and provides a good justification for education reform, even in the eyes of nationalists and conservatives who do not like fundamental change. In reality, many Japanese universities cannot survive without international students. Many master’s degrees in the fields of social science, including some SGU programs in economics and business management, are filled with international students, especially from China.

Japan still seems to be an exception in a world of academic publishing primarily shaped by global networks of scholars, institutions and publications.

Still, most of these programs are conducted in Japanese, and international students are required to integrate into the university’s culture and practices. In contrast, many English-medium programs established through the internationalisation policy are Dejima-ised — which means the programs are only open to international students, who are segregated from other university components culturally and academically.

Meanwhile, Japan still seems to be an exception in a world of academic publishing primarily shaped by global networks of scholars, institutions and publications. Many research studies in Japanese academia, especially in the social sciences and humanities, are published primarily or only in Japanese. Academics cherish the huge market of Japanese readers. At the same time, Japan does not sufficiently invest in higher education compared to other OECD countries and young researchers are not well nurtured.

Japanese universities are losing prestige in the global university market. The expansion of global Japan studies, conventional Japanese-medium education for international students and the Dejima-isation of English-medium programs show the struggle of Japanese universities to demonstrate differences from other countries, as well as to simply open up and change.

About the author

Sae Shimauchi is Associate Professor at the International Centre and is in charge of the Global Education Programme at Tokyo Metropolitan University.

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