Do "September admissions" really contribute to the internationalization of universities?

LIU Yang
Fellow, RIETI

Discussions about "September admissions" were initially triggered by measures to delay the start of university classes owing to the spread of the novel coronavirus, but consideration of this issue will continue over the long term. According to many news reports in Japan on this topic and other sources, fall admissions are standard in many, primarily Western countries, and, thus, some have suggested that moving to September admissions would help to globalize universities by aligning them with university schedules in other countries, increasing the acceptance of international students in Japan and promoting study abroad programs for Japanese students. However, considering Japan's circumstances and the perspectives of both international and Japanese students who are interested in studying abroad, it is unclear whether it would really become easier to study abroad if the system were changed to September admissions.

Among the dozens of factors cited by numerous studies conducted in Japan and overseas regarding the decision to study abroad and the choice of destination, to the best of the author's knowledge, no study has focused on the timing of admissions. One reason to doubt the effect of changing the starting season is provided by the cases of South Korea, which has admissions in March, and which is ranked fourth in the world according to the number of students going abroad, and India, which has admissions in April-July, and which is ranked second (UNESCO Institute, latest 2017 data). This study therefore investigates whether a September admissions system could contribute to the internationalization of universities by promoting study abroad programs for Japanese students and increasing the acceptance of international students to Japanese universities. The targets of this study's analysis are privately sponsored international students. In Japanese universities, they account for more than 95% of international students. The number of government-sponsored international students is in fact decided by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology and other countries' governments, and therefore the university system has almost no impact on this number.

The Japanese language barrier presents a significant hurdle for international students to Japan, so the viability of September admissions immediately after graduation is debatable

First, whereas many countries teach English as a first foreign language, very few countries or schools teach Japanese as the first foreign language. Because students who did not major in Japanese, especially science majors, lack sufficient Japanese language skills for scholarship applications and part-time jobs, there is a concern that studying in Japan immediately after graduation may not be possible.

According to the "Survey Overview on the Living Situation of Privately-Sponsored International Students" conducted by the Japan Student Services Organization (latest 2017), the biggest challenge for most people before studying abroad was "learning the Japanese language." In addition, according to the "Student Guide to Japan" issued by the same organization, there are two routes for studying at Japanese universities and vocational schools. The first is "going on to a university or vocational school after studying Japanese" and the second is "going directly to a Japanese university or vocational school from one's home country." Taking the first route, students first enroll in a Japanese language school after arriving in Japan (Note 1) and then take the entrance examination at a university or vocational school while studying at the Japanese language school. In this case, it is impossible to enroll in the university or vocational school immediately after graduation in September, which provides them with more than six months to study Japanese, allowing for a smoother transition for students who graduate overseas in August and enroll in April of the following year, as can be done today (Note 2).

For the second route, "going directly to a Japanese university or vocational school from one's home country," September admissions seem to be more advantageous at first glance, but according to the guidebook, this route requires "already having sufficient Japanese language skill" or "attending courses provided in English." The first option is not possible for many students because few overseas schools teach Japanese as a foreign language. Furthermore, as is described in detail below, there are concerns that the disadvantages of these potential September admissions outweigh the advantages to international students who choose the second option. The number of international students who have actually chosen the option of "going directly to a Japanese university or vocational school from one's home country" is small. For example, the implementation of the "Examination for Japanese University Admission for International Students (EJU)" both overseas and in Japan has made it possible to be accepted by some Japanese universities and majors while living overseas (Note 3); however, although EJU can be taken in one's home country, the statistics from 2004 to 2019 show that more than 80% of the examinees come to Japan to take the EJU. Furthermore, when these data are combined with data on entrance examinations for international students conducted by each university in Japan, which is the main method of recruitment of Japanese universities, the total ratio of international students who choose to take these examinations abroad is very small.

September admissions are less likely to increase the number of international students who enroll in courses that can be taken in English

Additionally, there is a concern that September admissions have more disadvantages than advantages for students who choose the option of "attending a course that can be taken in English." The reason is that it is difficult to obtain a scholarship or a part-time job without sufficient Japanese language skills, and there are few opportunities to find a job in Japan in the future.

The decision to study abroad is partly based on interest in the culture and country, but previous studies have shown that it is essentially based on a cost-benefit analysis. According to Mazzarol and Soutar (2002), one of the most cited studies in the field, the action of studying abroad and the selection of a study abroad destination are determined by push-pull factors. Regarding the host country and university, which are on the "pull" side, the following six factors go into the decision: (1) easy access to information about study abroad programs and the destination country's international reputation; (2) the individual international student's evaluation of the study abroad content; (3) expenses related to studying abroad; (4) the natural and social environments of the study abroad destination; (5) the geographic distance and time difference from the country of origin; and (6) the network of acquaintances, relatives, and so forth in the study abroad destination.

Of these factors, September admissions affect the expenses related to studying abroad. One advantage of September admissions is that they make it possible to find a job earlier. However, with regard to scholarships, part-time jobs, and employment in the study abroad destination, which have been found to greatly influence the selection of a study abroad destination in many studies, September admissions immediately after graduation are a major disadvantage. First, most of the scholarships for studying in Japan are granted by private organizations (Note 4), which require applicants to have a certain level of Japanese language skills (Note 5). Thus, international students who enroll in courses offered in English immediately after graduation are unlikely to be able to obtain a scholarship. Similarly, part-time jobs are one of the main ways to reduce the costs of studying abroad, but most employers that hire international students for part-time jobs require Japanese language skills. In addition, the prospect of finding employment in the destination country in the future is one of the main factors in choosing a study abroad destination, but many international students who enroll in courses offered in English immediately after graduation have difficulty finding a job at a Japanese company. This difficulty arises because these students are studying specialized subjects in English, have little experience expressing their specialized knowledge in Japanese, and mainly speak casual Japanese outside the classroom. In contrast, most Japanese companies demand a high level of Japanese language skills. Thus, September admissions are unlikely to benefit students who take courses in English.

September admissions provide few advantages for Japanese students studying abroad

Japanese students who want to study abroad also face a language barrier because of the large linguistic distance between Japanese and English. Few of the factors preventing Japanese students from studying abroad that have been pointed out in previous studies improve with September admissions or August graduation; rather, there is a risk of increasing the barrier to studying abroad.

According to previous surveys, the factors that prevent Japanese students from studying abroad include a lack of language skills, financial issues, and health and security concerns; short-term study abroad programs also further caused increased difficulty in job hunting in Japan, delays in graduation, and problems with the recognition of credits (taken from Takahashi's (2018) literature review). In the case of short-term study abroad programs, the only difference between September and April admissions is that the timing of the overseas departure changes from the first to the second semester (Note 6). In the case of long-term study abroad programs, if the system is changed to September admissions, graduating students would have to enroll immediately after graduation. They would have less time to apply for scholarships from overseas universities, take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam, and learn about living conditions in the countries they may be traveling to. As a result, there is concern that barriers to studying abroad could actually increase, including costs, a lack of language skills, and anxiety about health and security.

What can we do at present to contribute to real internationalization?

Although real-world globalization has been greatly reduced owing to the impact of the ongoing novel coronavirus infection, online projects and exchanges are being promoted. The document "About the Internationalization of Universities" (2019) by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology mentions an inter-university exchange formation project with the United States and other countries that utilizes Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) education (Note 7). In addition, online education can efficiently address the problem of elementary and junior high school closures, which triggered this discussion of September admissions. In areas where the infection has already spread, such as the United States and China, online education has been greatly promoted. Additionally, smartphones, which are popular in Japan, can be used for online education, meaning that the initial investment is considered to be small (Note 8). If online education can be widely implemented when a second or third wave of infections occurs, it will not only reduce the educational gap in Japan but will also contribute to internationalization in the long term through international exchange programs.

June 12, 2020
  1. ^ Also in many cases, students that actually go on to graduate school first come to Japan as non-regular students, such as research or auditing students; prepare themselves for the entrance examination; and then take the graduate school examination in Japan.
  2. ^ In one example, which has been also reported by the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, students who graduate from the Northeast Yucai Foreign Language School (Middle and High School) in China in August of every year enroll in Japanese language schools to study Japanese and take their examinations. In April of the following year, most of them enroll in prestigious universities, such as the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University
    Additionally, I asked one of these graduates (accepted by the Faculty of Engineering at Kyoto University) about September admissions, and he said that it would definitely be difficult to enroll in September of his graduation year and that prospective students would be one year behind.
  3. ^ China, which is the most common country of origin of international students, has been excluded.
  4. ^ Please refer to page 36 of the "Student Guide to Japan" of the Japan Student Services Organization.
  5. ^ For example, with regard to scholarships from private organizations, it is stated on the following website that "there are many scholarships that assess Japanese language skills in writing and interviews, and restrict co-sponsoring with other scholarships."
  6. ^ For exchange students studying abroad for one year at an overseas university with a September admissions system, this period is from September to August of the following year. Thus, under the current April admissions system in Japan, this period covers the second semester of the current academic year and the first semester of the next academic year. Under the September admissions system, however, this period covers the first and second semesters of the same academic year.
  7. ^ The document states "the COIL system, which applies the online teaching method to international exchange, can provide opportunities for collaborative learning with overseas students who are in their countries, and have different languages and cultural backgrounds, regardless of geographical conditions."
  8. ^ Please refer to the case study of China as an example:
  • Takahashi, Mino. “Measures to encourage Japanese students to study abroad: based on the results of a survey targeting students who have inquired about studying abroad and students who have not studied abroad at Tohoku University." Bulletin of the Institute for Excellence in Higher Education, Tohoku University (2018).
  • Mazzarol, Tim, and Geoffrey N. Soutar. ""Push‐pull" factors influencing international student destination choice." International Journal of Educational Management (2002).

July 29, 2020