Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Japanese Avoid Studying Overseas? A Counter-Argument

Japanese university students have been called a lot of things recently, not many of them very nice. The Mainichi surmises that today’s post-secondary crowd is not in possession of the same “spirit of independence” exhibited by students who went through the system a decade earlier. The Yomiuri calls them “inward-looking” and the Japan Times insinuates that they are just plain afraid.

Afraid of what?

Studying abroad, of course.

The drop in the number of university students heading overseas has been labeled a harbinger of a wide variety of educational, economic and social malaise.  Apparently there were some 82,945 Japanese studying overseas at the tertiary level in 2004, but just 66,833 ventured abroad in 2008. We are constantly reminded that this is a cause for coordinated hand-wringing.

To be fair, that is a sizable drop, and schools in the US are particularly concerned. According to the Mainichi, 1997 witnessed 47,073 young Japanese taking classes at American junior colleges and universities. That tally has stumbled badly over the last decade, hitting 29,264 in 2008.

Incidentally, the drop in enrollment at American universities is not all that surprising given the competition that arose in the wake of September 11th, 2001. As America slammed the brakes on visa issuance, countries like Canada, the UK and Australia were there to pick up the slack by advertising cheaper tuition, secure study environments and less red tape.

But that is beside the point. What the Japanese media is most concerned about is highlighting any and every indication that the mother ship is sinking.

The reasons offered for the downturn in academic export numbers are many.

The most common culprit is the rather small and asinine timeframe currently set in stone by businesses for hiring prospective university graduates. Anyone who has read about this issue will recite that students would rather stay in Japan than risk missing that window of opportunity.

The Mainichi wondered openly if this wasn't the rebirth of self-imposed isolationism.

Others have posited that today’s generation is less adventurous because they grew up after Japan’s bubble economy got washed up on the rocks and are quite comfortable where they are, thank you very much.
Another frequent anthem is the assurance that these are uncertain economic times. Of all of the arguments put forth, this is probably the most logical.

Or it would be if the yen hadn’t appreciated so much against the dollar (and the euro…and the pound) since late 2007. But I digress.

The perceived lack of desire to study abroad is apparently just the tip of the gloomberg for Japan.
One argument is that Japan needs global-minded managers to steer its aging keel into calmer, and presumably globalized, waters. This was the assertion echoed by the dean of Madrid’s IE Business School when he was here on a recruiting visit (ahem) last October.

And almost everyone seems to obsess over the relatively robust numbers of students that neighbors China and South Korea send abroad. This is generally taken in the media as Exhibit B that Japan is on the wane.

And that may be true, economically at least. However, there are a couple of other explanations for this annual funeral dirge.

The Mainichi caught one of them, if but for just a brief moment. In an earlier linked-to article a former university president by the name of Takashi Masuda is quoted as saying, “The culprit is environment. Japanese universities try to fence in students so that they can fill their campuses to capacity, and instructors are loathe to let go of talented students.”

A quick look at the measures schools have taken to stave off bankruptcy over the last decade shows that this point of view is worthy of further consideration.

But another overlooked factor is possibly at play here.

Shortly after the study abroad numbers come out every year, the media publishes articles about how much the number of new “adults” (20 is the age of majority in Japan) has fallen since the year prior.

This year, for the first time as far as anyone can tell, 20-year-olds make up less than one percent of the national population. Obviously, this exacerbates the whole ‘graying society’ thing that Japan does so well.

According to numbers published yesterday by the Japan Times, the number of college-aged folks celebrating their Coming of Age Day yesterday was a full 30,000 individuals fewer than the year before.

And this is not just some freakish, one-off occurrence. A new low has been set annually for several years running.

30,000 college-aged students fewer than the year before. Yikes.

Now granted, not all of those people would have been enrolled in university, but it is worth noting that the percentage of high school graduates going on to university is reportedly on the rise as private schools have lowered entrance requirements in order to put butts in seats.

Even if the reality is that there was a drop of 10,000 university students from last year’s numbers, that’s still more than enough to cover the precipitous drop (roughly 8,000 students) in study abroad participants from 2007-08.

In other words, it is possible that the declining study abroad numbers are due, at least in part, to Japan’s well-publicized and continued birthrate stagnation.

This is reaching a bit, of course, because Japan's study abroad numbers from the past two years are still not fully available. In the meantime, however, we have at least two new angles to this story that likely deserve some media attention.

Not that they’ll get it.

Japan’s ship may indeed have a turbulent journey ahead of it, especially if the government keeps trashing ideas for increasing international exchange at the university level.

But at least its young passengers aren’t as lifeless or useless as the media would lead us to believe.


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