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Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012

Universities struggling to go global


With globalization rapidly spreading among the academic community, Japanese universities have become engaged in a fierce battle with overseas institutions to attract the world's brightest students.

News photo
See the world: An official from Tohoku University pitches the school's study abroad program to a group of Russian students during a promotional event last December at Lomonosov Moscow State University. KYODO

At a time when the universities are enrolling fewer students due to the dwindling population, the intensifying competition with foreign rivals is prompting more of them to establish liaison offices abroad.

Last December, more than 100 potential recruits attended an event at Lomonosov Moscow State University staged by Tohoku University's local office to promote its study abroad program.

Many of the students there expressed a keen interest in Japan's reputation for state-of-the-art technology, while others were drawn to its pop culture, given the popularity of manga and "anime" in Russia.

The session also gave students a chance to voice their concerns.

"I'm worried about the language barrier. Will there be appropriate assistance in class?" one asked.

"The students were very ambitious, and some even refused to leave until they had received the exact information they were after," a Tohoku University official said of the event.

Some 1,432 foreign students were enrolled at Tohoku University as of May, accounting for almost 10 percent of its student body.

The Sendai-based school, which also has recruitment offices in China and the United States, believes that "internationalizing" operations is essential to team up with more universities overseas and to raise its global competitiveness, according to its officials.

To cater to the needs of its foreign recruits, Tohoku University offers undergraduate and graduate degrees taught in English, and courses that exchange students attend count toward their degrees back at their home institutions, depending on regulations.

According to a survey conducted in fiscal 2009 by the education ministry, 101 Japanese public and private universities had offices abroad in roughly 60 countries and territories, including facilities set up for research purposes.

The University of Tokyo recently inaugurated an office in India, while Doshisha University, a private university in Kyoto, has representatives in Britain, South Korea and Vietnam, among other countries.

Some colleges, meanwhile, are exploring the possibility of teaming up with domestic businesses that operate facilities abroad and are familiar with local regulations and customs. For instance, Meiji University in April 2011 opened an office in China in cooperation with JTB Corp., the nation's largest travel agency.

Education experts say the sense of urgency to avoid being left behind by the intensifying global competition is spurring these moves.

Among leading U.S. colleges, for example, Yale University is collaborating with the National University of Singapore to open the Yale-NUS College in the city-state next summer, while the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has started to offer free Web-based course material.

Students in the European Union can study at foreign universities in the bloc under a credit transfer system that was established back in 1987.

Thus, "we can no longer just sit with our legs crossed and do nothing on account of Japan's persistently low birthrate," said the president of one national university, who requested anonymity.

"If we do not step out into the world, eventually our existence as a university will be questioned."

The education ministry states with confidence that "Japan has excellent research capabilities and is attractive to young people overseas."

But in reality, foreign students comprise only 3.1 percent of the country's total undergraduate and master's degree students — less than half the average of 6.4 percent among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

According to some experts, concerns about the language barrier and inadequate support for foreign students' daily lives make Japan a less attractive destination than many other countries.

As of May 2011, approximately 138,000 foreign students were enrolled in Japanese universities, graduate schools and other academic institutions, but the government aims to more than double this figure to 300,000 by around 2020.

To this end, it earmarked ¥44.5 billion in the fiscal 2012 budget to promote student exchanges and assist efforts by universities to go global.

"The internationalization of academic institutions will only continue to grow," a senior official at the education ministry said, urging universities to alter their traditional perspective. "The government will provide proactive assistance to support their efforts."

Still, attracting a greater number of foreign students is no easy task given the numerous obstacles universities have to overcome, such as creating more scholarships, providing more courses taught in English and ensuring adequate accommodations in student dormitories.

"There are way too many constraints at present, most notably due to staffing and budgetary issues," an official at a private university said. "The expansion of foreign student recruitment is not going as smoothly as hoped."

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