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Japanese schools raise their international premium

Jun 02, 2011

Over the past decade, the education sector has assumed a greater significance in the economic programs of governments. The imperative to build a knowledge-based society amid unbridled globalization and tough competition among countries has enlisted schools in the task of economic development.

So, governments set up road shows and educational fairs to recruit foreign applicants. Aside from becoming a vital part of a trade policy, education has also become an important manifestation of a country’s soft power.

Lately, Japanese universities, some backed by government incentives, and others under their own initiative, have gone increasingly bilingual as part of an effort to make the country’s educational sector less exclusionary and more globally competitive.

Among the schools that have intensified efforts to attract more overseas students is J.F. Oberlin University, a private institution in Tokyo. According to Toyoshi Satow, president and chairman of the board of trustees, J. F. Oberlin has had a long history of fostering collaborations.

“Our school’s mission has always been to train internationally active people through the Christian ideals. We would like to create a bridge between China, Japan, and the United States,” said Satow. Today, it has tie-ups with 90 different schools in 21 countries and regions.

As of last year, it had 430 students studying abroad and 600 overseas students on campus, some of whom took part in its one-year Reconnaissance Japan (RJ) Program, which focuses on language instruction and Japanese studies.

“The assumption is that people who want to come to Japan want to take courses on Japan. So we’ve set up a variety of courses that concentrate on Japanese studies. That’s not to say that the university will only reach out to that specific student. We will continue to grow this program, and are looking at options outside of Japanese studies currently,” said Dr. Bruce Batten, J. F. Oberlin’s vice president for international affairs.

“We also want to get students who might not normally come to Japan. So we don’t have a Japanese language requirement for exchange students. We can teach them at the beginning through advanced level,” he added.

To attract more international students, J. F. Oberlin also set up a new American affiliate in San Mateo,California.

Traditionally known for its core liberal arts education, International Christian University (ICU) has been popular among foreign students and Japanese students who grew up abroad. For university president Norihiko Suzuki, ICU’s appeal to applicants lies in its uniqueness.

“ICU is one of few universities in Japan that allows students to come to college without declaring their major. We give the opportunity to individual students to decide their own major, to decide the direction of their future career, and to essentially live their own lives,” he said.

As a testament to ICU’s commitment to the individual student, nationwide student satisfaction surveys have ranked the university at the top continuously since 1997.

The openness has attracted not only international students and globally minded Japanese students, but also American universities looking for partners for their study abroad programs and professor exchanges.

“We have a long history of a strong relationship with the University of California system and have started cooperating closely with Middlebury College,” said Suzuki.

Another trend is the growth of more overseas partnerships. For Tokyo’s Chuo University, founded in 1885, the push to strengthen foreign partnerships includes participation in the United Nations Academic Impact Initiative and a unique new program focusing on ecosystems in East Asia.

“We are currently developing a Water Environment Program that deals with water management related issues It is endorsed by the Japanese government and involves partners in China and Korea. This ‘triangle’ of universities and research institutes will train and license professionals capable of managing water-related environmental challenges,” said President and Chancellor Kazuyuki Nagai.

Known for its long relationship with London’s Middle Temple Court and as the alma mater to three Japanese Supreme Court justices, Chuo University has used the strong reputation of its Law Faculty and Law School to promote more international exchange.

“Last year, we launched an international summer program in English offering an introduction to Japanese law,” said Nagai. In cooperation with Boston University Law School, it also offers a summer program that introduces the U.S. legal system to Japanese students.

From its two campuses, in Tokyo and in Yokohama, Meiji Gakuin University, currently led by President Dr. Haruki Onishi, has reaffirmed its global outlook through its academic programs.

While Meiji Gakuin offers undergraduate programs in letters, economics, sociology and social work, law, international studies, and psychology, earlier this year, the university launched its Global and Transcultural Studies Program.

“English is going to be used in every class throughout the whole curriculum. We hope about a third of the students in this program could use English fluently as native speakers. In this new program, students will be taking courses in international studies, sociology, and economics. Its emphasis will be on internships.” Onishi said.

With that goal in mind, Onishi emphasized that the university is actively seeking corporate partners all over the world that will accept Meiji Gakuin’s students from the Global and Transcultural Studies department.

“One of the main aims of this new department is to seek overseas internship opportunities,” he explained.

Complementing that outlook, the school also runs student exchange programs and study abroad programs with around 20 institutions around the world, including the University of California in the United States and Maastricht University in the Netherlands.

“We are also adding a double degree program with San Francisco State University. I think it is important to deepen mutual understanding by whatever language and it seems to be a global trend to communicate in English. With this program and our new department, we can gladly accept new U.S. students by our polished English,” he said.

Meanwhile, the government is making the country’s educational system more accommodating to foreign students through the “Global 30 Project,” which will expand degree courses that can be obtained through English-only courses.

Yoshiaki Takaki, minister of education, culture, sports, science and technology, said “the government has established a goal of accepting 300,000 foreign students of quality and is aiming to realize a goal of 300,000 Japanese students studying abroad by 2020.”

In 2009, the ministry named 13 universities that will spearhead the program and among them are Nagoya University, Tohoku University, and Kyushu University.

Deep in the heart of Sendai, recently hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake, Tohoku University shows no intent of slowing down (See related article). The university opened its doors for classes only a month after the earthquake and tsunami. The university, traditionally strong in material science, physics, and chemistry, still hopes to attract more international students.

“We are further strengthening the structure so we can increase the number of English courses,” said Dr. Akihisa Inoue, Tohoku’s president. “We currently have 1,700 foreign students, and within 10 years we hope to double this to 3,000.”

For Nagoya University, the Global 30 Project will start by focusing on the strengths of the Greater Nagoya Area, regarded as the heart of Japanese industry and the base of automotive giants like Toyota.

“The key word here is sustainability,” explained Dr. Michinari Hamaguchi, Nagoya University president.

Automotive engineering is one of five new undergraduate programs offered by Nagoya University as part of the Global 30 Project.

“For the past three years, we have been offering a unique six-week intensive program for international students called the Latest Advanced Technology and Tasks in Automobile Engineering,” said Hamaguchi.

The course, which offers an opportunity to meet Dr. Shoichiro Toyoda, honorary chairman of Toyota Motor Corporation, has grown so popular with international students that Nagoya University introduced a full-time program in English.

Because the university also set up the new “Green Mobility Research Center” with Toyota and other automobile industries, students will have many opportunities to study and work with the world’s leadingautomotive engineers.

In the past decade, Nagoya University has produced four Nobel laureates, two each in physics and in chemistry.

According to Kyushu University president Setsuo Arikawa, the school will focus on its Global 30 activities this academic year.

“At the undergraduate level, we will be offering close to 180 courses in English. This is only in the engineering and agricultural science departments, which are strengths of Kyushu. This will evolve into an international school of arts and sciences with interdepartmental staffing, and joint Japanese/non-Japanese enrollments. At the graduate level, all 17 schools will have English-based courses with 51 programs altogether,” Arikawa said.

As part of the program, Kyushu University will also increase the number of international academic staff to teach English and develop curricula and learning materials, and it will send some of its Japanese faculty abroad for research and training in teaching methods.

Among other initiatives, Kyushu University also founded the International Institute for Carbon-Neutral Energy Research (I²CNER), which will focus on developing hydrogen energy and carbon dioxide sequestration technologies.

“The institute has a close collaboration with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and through it with the U.S. government and other U.S. universities and research institutes. With this new institute established, we expect the level of faculty mobility from and to the U.S. to increase further,” said Arikawa.

Such tie-ups are integral to Japan’s push to become more appealing to students and researchers.

“The United States is one of the more important countries in terms of exchange for Japan. Therefore, I hope exchanges with the U.S. will become even more enlivened through various measures,” said the education minister.

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Japan 2011 was prepared for and originally printed in Foreign Affairs magazine.

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