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Adapting to the Covid-19 pandemic

   Sep 01, 2021
Credit : GMI Post

As the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic continues to bear down on economies and disrupt the lives of billions of people around the world, Japan’s universities and schools have remained vigilant about safeguarding the health of their students, faculty and staff. While most classes are still conducted remotely, all schools are preparing to reopen classrooms once the pandemic is contained.

The country’s most renowned universities have exhibited much resilience during this prolonged health crisis. With their reputations intact, Japanese schools have stayed top-of-mind, judging from the number of international applicants to the country’s most prestigious universities.

“We currently provide online courses to foreign students who, according to our survey, were very happy that we provided them with that opportunity. They would have been happier if they got to study in the campus, but the situation didn’t allow us to do so. We thought we wouldn’t get the same number of students this year, but our graduate school enrollment actually increased,” said Tohoku University President Hideo Ohno.

Unfortunately, some universities were not prepared to handle the disruption caused by the global pandemic. Due to sudden international travel restrictions, they saw a slowdown in their student exchanges.

For Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, the situation might have been daunting. But it boldly faced difficulties and looks to the future with confidence and optimism.

“It was especially challenging for an international university like us because we recruit around 50 percent of our students from outside the country and want to have all domestic students spend their time abroad during their time at APU. So you can imagine that during this pandemic, when travelling is severely restricted, it was a huge challenge for us. But one of our strengths, as a university, is resilience,” said Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University Vice President Marian Beise-Zee.

Despite the challenges, Japanese universities have proven their resilience by quickly adapting and creating opportunities to strengthen their current systems.

“Although the Japanese government restricted receiving foreigners and sending students to foreign countries because of COVID-19, we succeeded to operate through an online system. We are using this online system to have some sort of student exchange program. This is only a substitute, but we must utilize the system because most of the students won’t get the chance to go abroad. That’s how we have made the most out of the situation,” said Kanagawa University Vice President Akihiro Matoba.

On the practical level, many universities faced the challenge to create effective connections with its students thousands of miles away and building a community of students located in different places and even different countries.

“Last March, I sent a message to students of TIU around the world, stating that although some of our students were not able to enter Japan, we were all connected and linked to the university and that we would do our best to still provide opportunities and education, albeit remotely. I felt it was a very important message to send: that we were not abandoning our international students or leaving them behind just because they could not enter Japan,” Tokyo International University Chancellor Nobuyasu Kurata said.

“Another challenge for our international students in particular was how they could support their cost of living because they were away from their families. We were one of the first universities to respond by providing financial assistance to those students in need,” Kurata added.

Others, like Hitotsubashi University, used the disruption to build stronger and wider connections with international partners during a time when travel is restricted and student exchange programs are suspended.

“Hitotsubashi University, Singapore Management University and Renmin University in China are members of SIGMA (Societal Impact and Global Management Alliance), together with top European business universities, like Copenhagen Business School and WU Wien (Austria). It is very important for us to develop this kind of alliances with SIGMA and other universities,” Hitotsubashi President Satoshi Nakano stressed.

In the last 40 years, Japan has stayed committed to internationalize its higher education system. The wider use of the English language has allowed Japanese students to adapt more easily when they go abroad and has attracted more international applicants wishing to study in the country. With regards to economic development and demographic terms, it is a win-win policy.

The internationalization of the Japanese higher education system has also nurtured a new breed of Japanese, one with a more globalized outlook and a wider perspective of the world. Working closely with the government, the Japan Association of National Universities (JANU) has taken the lead in promoting student exchange programs.

“JANU, has several important agreements with similar groups in the UK, France, Australia, the US, like the American Council of Education. Those agreements allow us to encourage national universities to send  students abroad and recruit international students  to Japan. At the same time, the government is also preparing to make competitive study grants available,” said JANU President Dr. Kyosuke Nagata.

Fully supportive of the efforts of the Hyogo prefectural government and its colleagues, University of Hyogo hopes to increase enrollment of students from around the world.

“We want to take in students from around the world, particularly from developing countries in Southeast Asia, South Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa and Latin America, rather than those only in Europe and the United States. That’s because we want, from the first year, to develop intellectuals who understand Japanese culture and consequently, develop human resources who will be bridges between Japan or Hyogo and their home countries in the future. This will lead not only to the achievement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) but also, by extension, contribute to world peace,” University of Hyogo President Isao Ohta said.

Among its peers, International University of Japan stands out for its initiative to internationalize. Not only has IUJ taken in more international students, a significant part from developing countries, (Only 10 percent of its student body is Japanese), it also conducts all its classes in English.

“We have been welcoming students from many developing countries. We are also developing new programs, like the International Public Policy program, which will bring together students, diplomats, and government officials from Japan and western Pacific countries here in our campus. They will be able to build a network for the future and hopefully, help build better diplomatic relations in the Western Pacific,” International University of Japan President Hiroyuki Itami said.

Meanwhile, International Christian University (ICU) plans to send its students abroad again in the near future, and is working with key partners to resurrect the various Study Abroad programs that have been largely on hold for the past eighteen months.

At the same time, for those who are not able to travel abroad, ICU is also committed to offering virtual study abroad opportunities to all students who remain on campus.

“With our commitment to provide a global experience to each and every student here, we are seeking to build on our current percentage of approximately 60% of students participating in one of our Study Abroad opportunities during their four years here at ICU. To this end, we are committed to developing new partnerships and to expanding the extent of our collaborations with existing partners. We are also looking to increase the scope of the activities initiated by our service learning center and using this to develop new ventures in regions such as Africa and Southeast Asia”, said ICU President Shoichiro Iwakiri.

Reflective of the close ties between Japan and the United States, many Japanese universities have formed partnerships with several prestigious American universities.

Since 1993, the cooperation between Asahi University and University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) continues to benefit both sides in terms of research, knowledge sharing and cultural understanding.

“When I was little, my parents took me to an English school. It was the first time I met a teacher from another country. I was nervous because I couldn’t speak the language. But through time, I learned that the language itself wasn’t the only thing needed in order to communicate with non-Japanese. I learned there were differences in body language, expressions, and culture that came along with it. It was then that I realized that partnerships and face-to-face interactions played an important role in becoming an individual who is globally aware. That is something I have been doing ever since,” Asahi University President Katsuyuki Ohtomo said.

“Asahi University provides unique experiences to both international and local students through its face-to-face interactions. From the start, internationalization was at the core of the university and we remain committed to fostering partnerships. We train our students to contribute to the future of society through their knowledge and ability. We look to develop their intelligence and creative spirit in line with that,” Ohtomo also said.

With the growing awareness and increasing importance of sustainable development around the world, several Japanese universities have wholeheartedly integrated SDGs into their programs.

“Okayama Region is one of the best places in the world to see how education for sustainable development (ESD) is integrated in advancing the SDGs in a multi-stakeholder partnership manner.  As the first UNESCO Chair in ESD across Asia and the only national university that received a special prize at the Japan SDGs Award from the Government of Japan, we led a profound cultural shift for higher education institutions and they implemented SDG-based management systems,” Okayama University President Hirofumi Makino said.

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