The Japan News by The Yomiuri Shimbun

Home > Opinion > Culture and Education


Culture and Education

The Strange Relationship Between Studying Abroad and Developing Human Resources

Aya Yoshida
Professor, Faculty of Commerce, Waseda University

Educational systems institutionalized by the state are generally implemented within the framework of the national government. However, higher education is treated somewhat differently. This is because higher education—which is expected to fulfill its role in advancing knowledge through research—must go beyond its boundaries to pursue the leading edge in knowledge. One method for achieving this is to send students for overseas studies. Studying abroad has taken on many forms throughout history since the first universities were established in Europe during the Middle Ages. In recent years, the Japanese government has made studying abroad for Japanese students a focus of national policy.

Sending Japanese People Overseas

In the Japan Revitalization Strategy formulated in June 2013, the government laid out goals for developing the skills of young people to become globally competent by setting objectives to increase the number of Japanese students studying abroad from 60,000 in 2010 to 120,000 in 2020. This objective was also mentioned in the Second Basic Plan for the Promotion of Education. Six months after this cabinet decision was made, the relevant authorities established the Liaison Conference of Relevant Authorities for Promoting Study Abroad for Youth in December 2013, and in 2014, the Implementation Plan for the Promoting Study Abroad for Youth was formulated. Why is studying abroad for Japanese students now being promoted by all-Japan system?

The Sense of Impending Crisis in the Background

When observing the implementation plan in detail, you get the strong sense that the future of Japan is in great peril. They indicate the fact that the number of students who study abroad has been decreasing: "Unfortunately, in the current state of overseas education in our country, we have been seeing a consistent decrease of students studying abroad since the peak of 83,000 students in 2004." It is true that at the time this plan was formulated, the number of students studying abroad had decreased 30%, at 58,000 students.

Why is the decrease in the number of students studying abroad a problem? The reason for this is described as follows: "In the face of the declining birth rates and the rapid globalization of society, there is an urgent need to deal with this trend and educate as many young people as we can to instill in them the skills needed to support the future of our country." Studying abroad is being presented as a measure against the certainties of the declining birth rates and the globalization of society.

What is expected of students studying abroad, then? The challenge is being presented as "the need to secure and educate domestic human resources who can push globalization forward" in order to meet the needs of the many Japanese overseas affiliated corporations who need human resources that can establish and manage overseas offices. Studying abroad is presented as a means of tackling this challenge. By studying abroad, young people can become "global human resources," much needed by today's corporations.

The Diminution of Global Human Resources

Why is the government taking the lead in educating human resources that corporations need? This is because, “in the face of the current state in which GDP per capita is decreasing significantly, there is a need to pursue further developments to ensure the continuity of the growth of Japan.” The logic behind this is that there is a pressing need to train global human resources in order to support the overseas expansion of Japanese corporations to meet the needs of economic growth within Japanese society. In order to train global human resources, we need to increase the number of students who study abroad.

Global human resources, as stated above, has a clear definition. It describes people who possess the following three qualities. Quality 1: foreign language skills and communication skills; Quality 2: a sense of independence and assertiveness, the spirit of challenge, cooperativeness and flexibility, and the sense of responsibility and purpose; Quality 3: the understanding of foreign cultures and a strong sense of Japanese identity (from the Council on Promotion of Human Resource for Globalization Development). According to this logic, students should be able to become global human resources by studying abroad, but does this mean that these qualities cannot be attained without studying abroad? Or does it mean that by studying abroad, these qualities are more easily attained? I am sure anyone can understand that it is not such a simple relationship. However, policies regarding studying abroad are being pushed forward according to this strange logic.

Can Short-term Study Abroad be Considered Studying Abroad?

Under these policies, universities began putting their efforts in study abroad en masse. According to the figure on the right, which is based on research conducted by the Japan Student Services Organization, the number of students studying abroad is steadily increasing. However, most of this increase can be attributed to students who study abroad for less than a month. Is such a short period of time sufficient for becoming global human resources to meet the needs of corporations? According to the Council on Promotion of Human Resource for Globalization Development, the standard of linguistic skills of global human resources are broken down as follows: (1) the ability to communicate while traveling abroad; (2) the ability to communicate to meet the needs of daily life; (3) the ability to write and communicate on a professional level; (4) the ability to negotiate and discuss matters one-on-one and (5) the ability to negotiate and discuss matters with a large number of people. The policies are meant to secure a certain number of people who are competent enough to reach levels (4) or (5). Reaching these high levels within a month of studying abroad is close to impossible.

Incidentally, these numbers correspond to students studying abroad who are enrolled in Japanese universities. The students mentioned above that are the cause of concern due to their declining numbers are those who are not enrolled in Japanese universities. The latter have actually been decreasing further, dropping to 53,000 students in 2014. If the government is serious about educating global human resources, there is a need to push these numbers up. On the other hand, if the basis for training global human resources is to improve language skills, there is no need to study abroad. There are plenty of opportunities for doing this in Japan.

The Change in Numbers of Students Studying Abroad

Educating Global Citizens

Why is studying abroad being promoted in the first place? Is the economic growth of Japan the only goal? Are universities creating various study abroad programs in line with this? How much of the emphasis regarding studying abroad is being placed on pursuing cutting edge knowledge, and gaining knowledge and skills than cannot be obtained in Japan? The conventional role of education is to train students to become businesspersons and politically-minded citizens. Thinking of this in the context of the current state of the development of globalization, the training of businesspersons to bear the burden of the country's economic growth is one issue, but an even bigger challenge is to train human resources who can resolve social issues that a single nation cannot solve alone. Strengthening the presence of Japan on this global stage should be taken into serious consideration.

Aya Yoshida
Professor, Faculty of Education and Integrated Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Aya Yoshida graduated from the Faculty of Letters, The University of Tokyo, and went on to complete the doctoral course at the Graduate School of Education at the same university. She earned her Ph.D. in education. She is an expert in the sociology of education. She was an assossiate professor and a professor at the National Institute of Multimedia Education before assuming her current post. She is the Associate Director of the Center for Higher Education Studies, Waseda University. She has also been an expert committee member of the Central Council for Education, and a liaison committee member of the Science Council of Japan.
Major recent publications include " ‘Global Human Resource Development’ and Japanese University Education: 'Localism' in Actor Discussions," Educational Studies in Japan, No. 12, p. 83–99, 2017; "Is it Possible to Measure the Learning Outcomes of Liberal Education?: From the Engagement of the U.S. in the 2000's" Bulletin of the Institute for Excellence in Higher Education No. 2, Tohoku University, p. 3–16, 2016; "Global Jinzai no Ikusei wo Meguru Kigyo to Daigaku no Gap" (The Gap Between Corporations and Universities in Approaching Global Human Resource Training), Migration/Diaspora Studies 4: "Global Jinzai" wo Meguru Seisaku to Genjitsu (Research on Migrants and Diasporas 4: Policies and Truths Surrounding Global Human Resources), Akashi Shoten, p. 206–221, 2015; "Sai" Shutoku Gakureki wo Tou (Revisiting the Issue of Attaining Education), Toshindo, 2014; and Daigaku to Kyoyo Kyoiku: Sengo Nihon ni Okeru Mosaku (Liberal Education in the University in Post War Japan: In Search of the Place to Fit), Iwanami Shoten, 2013.