Japan sets 2027 deadline to recover international student numbers

Policy welcome, but Japan ‘must address uncertainty’ around future Covid waves, academics say

June 30, 2022
Japan airport
Source: iStock

Japan’s ministry of education intends to boost overseas student numbers to pre-pandemic levels of more than 310,000 by 2027, according to national media.

After a steep decline in student numbers following strict Covid-19 border policies, the government plans to recruit more international students – in particular areas such as science and engineering, Nikkei Asia reported.

That news comes after two years of uncertainty for many overseas learners, who were until recently unable to the country before Japan relaxed its border restrictions in spring this year. Foreign student numbers are still far from pre-pandemic levels, with an estimated 242,000 in the country in 2021.

Academics welcomed the news but stressed that the country needs to provide assurance that its strategy will not change if Covid cases rise again.

“In terms of the goal to return to pre-pandemic levels by 2027, I do believe that this can be achieved in five years so long as Japan remains open, does not impose additional burdens on students and universities, and finds even more ways to be inviting as a destination,” said Matthew Wilson, dean of Temple University’s Japan campus.

Still, he noted that many students remain wary.

“Although they welcome the recent loosening of border restrictions, there is a continuing fear that the next wave might result in a return to a stricter approach,” said Professor Wilson, adding “there is a strong perception among prospective students that it is extremely difficult to enter Japan”. 

While a number of his students “did everything possible” to enter the country in March and April, more than a third of those holding certificates of eligibility needed to enter the country decided against it.

“Mentally, they had relinquished their desire to study in Japan,” he said.

Jacques Wels, a research fellow at UCL who has studied the mental and financial impact of Japan’s border closure, agreed that the problem has much to do with how Japan’s policies are perceived.

“The current crisis shows up the deep problem Japan has with foreigners. This is not due to common people who do not have particular problems with immigration but about political strategies that use racism and fear as a tool. Japan will reach its targets but has already lost its reputation.”

He too warned over the uncertainty created by further border disruptions, with students unable to anticipate the “risk of being locked in or locked out”.

“Japan should commit to applying reasonable border enforcement measures in case of new waves. Without this commitment, Japan will be perceived as a risky destination for students and researchers,” he said.

Dr Wels noted that the country has yet to allow in tourists – beyond a limited number allowed on guided tours – something he said was “manageable for a short time but could have an impact over the long term”, with families unable to visit international students.

Under the government plans, the government is also expected to aim to encourage more Japanese students to study abroad. Numbers of outbound students dropped significantly from more than 107,000 in 2019 to 1,400 in 2020, according to the Nikkei report.

Ian Wilson, director of the Center for Globalisation at the University of Aizu, said that Tokyo could also encourage a clearer, more unified message from its ministries.   

Currently, the government risks undercutting itself, with its Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Mofa) and Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (Mext) sending “conflicting messages” on outbound mobility, he said.  

“Mofa labels countries as Level 2 (avoid non-essential travel) or 3 (avoid all travel)...but then Mext sends schools letters encouraging them to send students abroad anyway,” said Professor Wilson.

“If all departments of the government held the same optimistic attitude towards student mobility – both inbound and outbound – and if they projected that view in their policies and directives, that would help the HE sector immensely.”

pola.lem@timeshighereducation.com

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