The first General International Student Exchange Promotion Council, hosted by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) in cooperation with the Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO), was held Feb. 8 at the National Olympics Memorial Youth Center in Tokyo. Until that time, International Student Exchange Promotion Councils were only held on a prefectural basis. For this first-ever nationwide council, 400 representatives of companies, local governments, nonprofit organizations, Japanese language schools, universities and international student support organizations and international students, as well as experts, gathered to learn, discuss and exchange information to further promote Japan's acceptance of international students.
MEXT adviser Tsutomu Kimura gave a keynote lecture on the government's 300,000 Foreign Students Plan, formulated in July 2008, which aims to increase the number of talented international students studying in Japan to 300,000 by 2020 through cooperation among industries, academia and government. According to Kimura, the number of international students studying at Japan's higher education institutions (colleges, graduate schools, junior colleges, technical colleges, vocational schools) was 132,000 in 2009, over 90 percent of whom came from Asian countries.
Under Japan's Immigration Control Act, "ryugakusei" (students studying abroad) are defined as international students in higher education institutions in Japan while those attending Japanese language institutions in Japan are defined as "shugaku sei" (pre-college students).
"Currently, over 35,000 students attend Japanese language schools, of which over 60 percent go on to attend universities or other higher education intuitions," said Kimura. He pointed out the need to unify pre-college student visas with college student visas, which is to take effect in July this year. Unification of visas should encourage collaboration between pre-college and college education, he added.
According to experts, Japanese language education for international students be
comes one of key issues when aiming to increase student numbers. Collaboration
between colleges and Japanese language schools is imperative since colleges can
not achieve this without help from language schools.
In this regard, Junko Nishihara, principal of Kyoto Japanese Language School, and Hitoshi Yamada, professor of Ritsumeikan University, gave a joint keynote lecture on their collaboration case.
According to Nishihara, Kyoto Japanese Language School collaborates with several colleges in different areas such as pre-college preparation, short-term language programs, followup after entering college and Japanese classes for job hunting.
She specifically covered the cases of Ritsumeikan and Kyoto Seika University. While Ritsumeikan students are ryugakusei, Seika students are shugakusei. "The change in visa regulations to college student visas will make the collaboration process smoother and easier," said Nishihara.
Ritsumeikan University was selected as one of MEXT's "Global 30" Project universities, which aims to produce core schools that will be internationalized for educating and recruiting international students.
"With Global 30, Ritsumeikan's international students will grow from the current 1,000 to 4,000 in 10 years," Yamada said. "In addition to the students' needs in general Japanese language education, there are various requests and demands that can't be fulfilled by our internal resources. Collaboration with Japanese schools with long histories and expertise would allow us to efficiently offer high-quality programs in different areas. We can provide general Japanese classes to students for professional academic courses, as well as short-term intensive courses or business Japanese courses to meet these diversified needs."
Still, collaboration between language schools and universities also faces several issues. From a Japanese language school's perspective, Nishihara pointed out the importance of mutual educational understanding and cooperation for program preparation through thorough discussion, along with training coordinators on both sides to run programs smoothly.
Ritsumeikan's Yamada agreed with this point and noted that it is necessary for universities to further raise awareness within the university on language education and Japanese language schools.
"We need to educate university members on what language schools can do to redevelop our language education," Yamada said. "In April 2009, we launched our Japanese Language Education Center, which directly collaborates with language schools, so it is important that we reinforce our system."
Yamada said that Ritsumeikan aims to drastically increasing the number of short-term Japanese language programs to help meet the goal of 4,000 international students.
Meanwhile, Nishihara pointed out that to hire and keep instructors language programs should be stable and run year-round. However, Yamada said that it is difficult to secure a year-round program since many international students attend short-term programs during their summer or spring break.
In a sectional meeting following these keynote lectures, participants from universities and Japanese language schools discussed cases and issues of collaboration in Japanese language education.
Takahide Ezoe, principal of Shinjuku Japanese Language Institute, expressed his concern over the issue of the decreasing number of international students. Prospective students find Japan less attractive compared to other countries, where com pleting language schools leads to higher education, he said.
"Japanese language schools' credits are not transferable as university credits in Japan, so studying in Japan is like a gamble for students from abroad," he said. "To increase international students, collaboration between universities and Japanese language schools is indispensable. This should be pursued and promoted by MEXT."
Ezoe cited China as a good example with the establishment of the Confucius Institute, a government-led academic organization that has worldwide reach.
Nishihara added, ''We should check students' academic capabilities instead of their Japanese language skills. Language proficiency should be dealt with after enrollment, collaborating with language schools. Talented students should not be shut out simply because of their limited skills in Japanese. Ritsumeikan's Language Center teaches the basics like hiragana, which is considered as part of the university's curriculum.''
Still, universities raised some issues such as the belief that because universities should offer ''higher'' education, it becomes an impediment to collaboration, as well as the difficulty of approving credits as part of their requirements even if they wanted to do so.
Language schools stated the difficulties they face when trying to communicate with universities, since the organizations are too big and they don't have any contacts.
Several comments were made on the need for MEXT to set an official collaboration guideline with a top-down approach so that universities can operate smoothly.
Overall, the role of Japanese language education within the scheme from pre-college to after enrollment, including the issue of approving credits, was noted. Another issue raised was the need to clarify in the School Education Law about where Japanese language schools are categorized in relation to higher education institutions so that collaboration can occur more smoothly.
Throughout the discussion, many participants pointed out the significance of being able to discuss and share information, face to face, among universities and language schools on a nationwide basis. University and language school participants expressed their hope for a national council to be hosted by MEXT again in the near future.