There has been much discussion in Japan about the possibility that today’s university students are more “inward-looking” than in the past. A 2012 survey by the Japan Youth Research Institute contributed to the debate. Only 46% of the Japanese high school students surveyed hoped to study abroad compared to 53% of U.S. students and 58% and 82% of Chinese and Korean students, respectively.
A 2014 survey of Japanese university students by the British Council, however, challenged the idea that Japanese students were “inward-looking.” On the basis of other surveys it has done, the British Council found Japanese interest in study abroad to be equivalent or higher than in the U.K. and the United States (all hover around 50%).
A recent drop in study abroad numbers has, however, also caused concern. Japanese students overseas fell from 82,945 in 2004 to 60,138 in 2012. At least two factors are at work: the economic crisis of 2008 with a resulting decline in household income and the fact that major growth in Japanese higher education enrollment has been among students who are the first in their family to go to university and who may not feel as prepared for study abroad as traditional students.
Both the British Council survey and one conducted by the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) in 2009 identified similar factors deterring Japanese students from studying abroad, of which the following were listed as most important:
- Not confident of foreign language skills
- Concern that destinations are unsafe
- Concern about difficulty of courses abroad
- Possible negative impact on career development back in Japan
- Uncertain about ability to establish positive social interactions abroad
Students also mentioned that they were very comfortable in Japan and appreciated the high quality of Japanese universities.
Previous research has identified some additional deterrents, although these did not score highly on the British Council survey:
- Risk of delaying time to graduation
- Inadequate support at home university
- Courses taken abroad do not always count at home university
- Interference with the recruiting process by Japanese companies, which starts in the second semester of the third year and continues through the fourth year
Japanese engagement with study abroad certainly has room to grow. There is also, however, room for optimism about its ability to do this. Despite the recent drop, the number of Japanese students studying abroad is 50% higher than 20 years ago (now nearly 5% of the university population).
Understanding how to grow this number even more requires understanding the shifts in motivation for and duration of study abroad that have been occurring among Japanese students, as well as the needs of new types of students. These changes are ushering in a new era in overseas study for Japan, one in which institutional partnerships are particularly important.
The British Council and METI surveys illuminate this situation. Only 5% of students now go abroad to pursue a full degree. Short-term stays are most common; over half are three months or less. Students also mention that their home institution’s partnership with an institution in a particular nation is an important factor in choosing a destination.
The top four reasons students give for studying abroad (starting with the most frequently mentioned) were:
- To improve my language skills
- I wanted to travel overseas
- This is the start to my international career
- My friends, family or professors encouraged me
For those who hoped to study abroad in the future, the United States remained the most desired location (24%), although data on actual mobility make clear that many are not able to achieve this goal.
Finally, the British Council survey found that those Japanese students who studied abroad were much more optimistic about their own futures and that of Japan as a nation.
Ways to build partnerships for greater Japanese student mobility
Such findings yield several ideas concerning how to build U.S.-Japanese partnerships that result in greater Japanese student mobility.
- Embed study abroad opportunities deeply across the institution and curriculum so that faculty and staff are engaged in encouraging students to participate (see Curriculum Integration)
- Enhance interaction with the U.S. partner institution for students at home institution through online formats, visiting faculty, and presentations by visiting students from that institution (see COIL Center, DePaul and Ritsumeikan)
- Map out detailed course articulations to make transfer credit easier (see Differing Accreditation Systems)
- Develop short-term as well as full-year options
- Create programs that use internships or service to connect to career development (see Research; Internships, and Many Forms of Experiential Learning)
- Provide opportunities for students to improve their English proficiency, both before and during a program (see Insufficient Language Competence on the Part of Students)
- Provide opportunities for students to increase their confidence about taking courses at a U.S. institution through bridge programs (see Student Success Programs)
- Develop outreach activities to draw in students beyond those who have historically pursued study abroad
- Develop financial models that make study abroad feasible for more students (see Finances and Tuition Differentials)
- Develop options that avoid the recruitment cycle by Japanese companies
- Use optimistic returned study abroad students as good ambassadors for encouraging other students to follow suit
- Stress the distinctive advantages of studying at a U.S. partner, as well as the high level of safety at most U.S. institutions