national universities
Japan sets its eyes on improving the competitiveness of its national universities. Source: Charly Triballeau/AFP

Since the Meiji era, Japan has tried to make its universities more international, a move that became more urgent as it faced depopulation in the last two decades. The effort continues with new plans by its education ministry to increase the number of international students at its national universities from the 2022 academic year. According to The Yomiuri Shimbun via The Nation Thailand, the move aims to increase the universities’ international competitiveness and ensure the stability of their finances.

Japan’s national universities are expected to receive a notice from the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry that will allow an increase in their enrollment limit by next summer. The liberalisation of tuition fees for foreign students is likely to be discussed as well, said the report. University fees can be increased by up to 20% at each university’s discretion.

The ministry hopes that by issuing the notice by next summer, an increased number of international students will be admitted to national universities from the 2022 academic year. To ensure no shortage of teachers and classrooms, the ministry aims to check in advance the level of enrolment of foreign students. International students studying in Japan during the 2019 academic year included those from China (41.2%), Vietnam (19.8%), Nepal (8.2%), South Korea (7%) and Taiwan (3.3%).

Making Japan’s national universities more competitive

Under the current system, a university that wants to increase its quota needs to apply to the Council for University Establishment and School Corporation, an advisory organisation to the education minister, which will conduct an inspection as to whether the increase is appropriate.

Japan has been experiencing a decline in the population of 18-year-olds since the 1990s. The ministry has maintained the stance that no increase was allowed in national universities’ enrolment except for special cases, saying it would place a burden on the finances of competing private universities.

Japan’s national universities have a total enrolment of around 96,000 since the 2005 academic year. There were 13,070 foreign students studying at national universities in the 2019 academic year, or approximately three percent of the total number of students. The ratio was lower than that for private universities, which stands at 3.7%.

According to the Times Higher Education World University Ranking 2021, the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University are the only two Japanese institutions in the top 100. The government aims to have at least 10 universities in the top 100 by 2023.