13 November 2018
by Thomas Brotherhood

Japan: A New Home for Student Migrants?

The need to attract international students and talent is particularly pressing in Japan where the birthrate is among the lowest in the world, leading to a shrinking youth population and demographic decline, argues Thomas Brotherhood in Inside Higher Ed.

Student migration – Connecting the global skills race and higher education

In the context of a knowledge-based global economy and the attendant race for skills, attracting international talent has become a key concern for developed nations. Higher education plays a critical role in this endeavor as international students continue to be the largest mobile population on earth in absolute terms. These students are also recognized as a highly attractive source of skilled migrants due to their large numbers, youth, high skill base, and head start in linguistic and cultural adaptations. Thus, nations stand to gain from an influx of these potential skilled migrants, but higher education institutions may also benefit from the existence of migration pathways for their international students. Such pathways increase the attractiveness of these countries as a study abroad destination and growing inbound student mobility is associated with better opportunities for post-study work.

Canada and Australia are clear cases of a confluence of incentives between the national government and higher education sector. Both have witnessed rapid growth of their international education industries following the creation of direct “two-step” migration pathways that allow international students to remain in the country after their graduation. The success of these pathways and the growing evidence of the marketing advantage that universities enjoy in countries that grant work rights to international students has seen similar policies emerge in Germany and New Zealand, among others. In the right political context, it seems, student migration is a potent tool for the benefit of nations, universities, and represents a valuable and desirable opportunity for the students themselves.

A lifeline for Japan?

The need to attract international students and talent is particularly pressing in Japan where the birthrate is among the lowest in the world, leading to a shrinking youth population and demographic decline. Among the consequences of this are unprecedented labor shortages and insufficient national demand to fill the supply of its large higher education sector, comprised of more than 750 higher education institutions. As a result, university closures and mergers have become commonplace. In this context the need for concerted efforts to attract and retain international students is increasingly recognized.

However, while the introduction of migration pathways for international students has bolstered the labor force and higher education systems in Canada and Australia, these are countries for which migration has long been associated with national development. Japan, on the other hand, has a history of skepticism towards migration, and this remains a powerful narrative today. Earlier this year Prime Minister Abe continued to reiterate this position of skepticism towards migration, stating that “there is no plan to introduce migration policy under my cabinet.”

Despite such public declarations, recent policy initiatives appear to indicate a guarded liberalization of migration policy with international students at its heart. The “designated activities” visa was broadened to include job hunting activities for graduating international students, allowing them to remain for up to two years in pursuit of a job. Support systems for students wishing to follow such pathways are also becoming more widespread. For example, the Japan Student Services Organization (JASSO) now publishes an annual guide entitled “Job Hunting for International Students” featuring practical information not only on job hunting, but also regarding visa pathways. Furthermore, the eligibility requirements for the “highly-skilled professional visa” (HSPV) were recently updated, making it more readily attainable for graduating students, particularly those in postgraduate courses.

These changes appear to have formalized a new migration pathway that specifically targets international students in Japan. This is a significant shift, providing an unprecedented opportunity for international students to remain in Japan post-graduation. More pertinently, this is a potential lifeline for the higher education sector, that may attract record numbers of international students and kickstart a new phase in its 30-year process of internationalization. While these changes are very recent, preliminary evidence does indicate a rise in international students transitioning to work, though there is a need for more evidence regarding the success of these transitions to the workforce. It is also too early to tell whether these changes will significantly boost inbound mobility to Japanese universities and aid the system’s intention to host 300,000 international students by 2020, though a sharp upturn is visible from the most recent data.

The way forward

The question remains: how can Japanese universities seek to thrive in this new policy environment? Given that evidence from abroad indicates that the quality of in-country, post-graduation opportunities are attractive to potential international students, universities stand to become significantly more attractive by developing dedicated systems to support these students during their transition to the workforce and building a proven track record of success in this regard.

Dedicated and intensive language training is crucial, as language requirements in the workplace often exceed those of the classroom. Dedicated staff who can support students through the annual ikkatsusaiyou (batch recruitment) process, notoriously time-consuming and alien to international talent, are essential for prospective students to have a good chance of being recruited. Perhaps most important of all are staff with a thorough knowledge of visa regulations and application processes that may discourage both students and employers who are less familiar with these formalities. Building long-term partnerships with employers explicitly seeking to hire international talent appears a way to mitigate this issue and provide a consistent pathway to remaining in Japan, to the benefit of all parties.

Make hay while the sun shines

Recent policy changes have set the stage for Japanese universities to become a powerful conduit by which international talent can be attracted to Japan, to the potential benefit of its ailing higher education sector. But, just as this pathway has opened, we only need to look at the UK to see how changing political imperatives can rapidly bring an end to the convergence of incentives that gave rise to this new pathway. It now falls to the universities themselves to make the right investments to capitalize on this unprecedented opportunity while the odds are in their favor.