Japan aims to attract international students to address workforce challenges

Efforts to boost Japan’s birth rate have not yielded significant results, and the country is faced with the challenge of sustaining a financially active workforce that can support its population.

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Japan has been battling a growing labor shortage that has been intensified by the pandemic. The country’s response involves commitments to provide 400,000 spots for international students by 2033, boosting funding for a select group of universities, and simplifying procedures for foreigners to reside and work in Japan.

These initiatives hope to enhance Japan’s standing in an increasingly competitive global higher education landscape that accommodates nearly 3 million students.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has implemented new policies to rejuvenate Japan’s labor force, addressing challenges posed by an ageing population and declining birth rates. In 2022, Japan recorded a historic low of only 7.2 births per 1,000 people.

Efforts to boost Japan’s birth rate have not yielded significant results, and the country is faced with the challenge of sustaining a financially active workforce that can support its population.

Encouraging international students to study in Japan

Encouraging international students to study in Japan and establish long-term residency is considered a straightforward solution, according to Hiroshi Ota, a researcher specializing in student mobility at Hitotsubashi University.

Japan’s post-graduate and higher education sector has not escaped the workforce challenges the country is facing. Over the past decade, the number of students pursuing PhD programs has declined by 20%.

“This means that our share of doctoral students within the world is inevitably decreasing … Nobody wants to have such results. So, we want to change the scenario for the future,” says Akiyoshi Yonezawa, a higher education researcher at Tōhoku University.

PhDs undervalued by employers

In Japan, post-graduate qualifications, such as PhDs, are often undervalued by employers, leading to a lack of incentive for students to pursue advanced degrees. Ota adds that salaries remain consistent regardless of the level of education, which further deters individuals from investing in higher degrees.

Graduates with PhDs in Japan often encounter job insecurity due to the limited availability of academic positions at the country’s universities. This situation discourages young Japanese individuals from pursuing a PhD, as they opt for more viable career paths.

The challenges related to recruiting and retaining women in academia in Japan have been indirectly exacerbated by the decline in the number of students pursuing PhDs. Even female professors face difficulties surviving in a male-dominated academic environment.

‘Japan has a peculiar hiring system,’ Ota explains, with a strong emphasis on membership-based employment. This approach values group harmony and loyalty to the company over individual skills and knowledge. As a result, hiring women and promoting them in this system can be slow and challenging, which contributes to gender disparities in the workforce and academia.

Shift towards globalized employment

According to Ota, Japan is experiencing a slow shift towards more globalized employment practices, with the government promoting inclusion and diversity. Initiatives focusing on the UN Sustainable Development Goals and gender equality are being implemented in universities to facilitate this transition.

Japan’s efforts to boost its research output and establish a system akin to the US Ivy League institutions are underway, with Tōhoku University being one of the first recipients of a significant ¥10 trillion (about $64 billion) investment fund.

Yonezawa notes that the investment is expected to provide the university with increased annual income over the next 25 years, allowing it to attract young talent and further enhance its academic and research capacities.

The proposed changes at Tōhoku University include a substantial restructuring, granting junior researchers greater autonomy. Yonezawa added that they will be given the position of principal investigator (PI) at an early stage, with the offer of tenure track positions to motivate innovative research. Additionally, the university is planning to introduce more support roles, including mental health services for students.

“Japan has a very strong tradition to foster talented researchers within our own system… In some fields, 90% of the professors get a PhD in Japan, and then they become a professor in Japan, they are highly connected with the Japanese community,” Yonezawa explained.

An increasing number of Japanese universities are offering courses that are entirely taught in English. Furthermore, the government is not only supporting students in their studies but also in their job search and placement and obtaining visas is now also becoming easier, creating a more attractive environment for international students.

Japan is not the only country in Southeast Asia facing a shortage of domestic students. South Korea and Taiwan have also revealed plans to increase the number of international students and offer additional support for obtaining working visas.

Nathan Yasis

Nathan Yasis

Nathan studied information technology and secondary education in college. He dabbled in and taught creative writing and research to high school students for three years before settling in as a digital journalist.

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Nathan Yasis

Nathan Yasis

Nathan studied information technology and secondary education in college. He dabbled in and taught creative writing and research to high school students for three years before settling in as a digital journalist.

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