Japan - building a strong and sustainable international student market

Japan’s desire to increase its international student population has been government policy since 1983. In May 2019, international students represented 7.8% of the student population in Higher Education. With the rapid decline in college-age children, international students are not only an important source of revenue, but also add diversity and allow domestic students to benefit from cross-cultural communication. Here we explore how Japan's institutions can optimise their international strategies by leveraging insights into why their current students have chosen to come to their institution and whether they are satisfied with their experience of learning and living.

To continue increasing international student numbers, Japanese institutions really need to understand what motivates international students to study overseas and how they feel about their experience once they are there. We at i-graduate have more insight into this than most with our International Student Barometer which has captured the views of over 3 million international students since 2005.

If we look at the top five nationalities that choose to study in Japan, they are Chinese, Vietnamese, Nepalese, South Korean and Taiwanese. Indeed, together these nationalities represent nearly 80% of the total of 228,403 international students in higher education in Japan.

Home Nation No. of Students in Higher Education in Japan
China 94,047
Vietnam 45,248
Nepal  18,662
South Korea 15,977
Taiwan 7,519


It is instructive, therefore, to look at these nationalities and the key reasons why they choose to study at their institution overseas. While data that we have currently is based on students who are travelling to the key student destinations of UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Europe, it still provides valuable insight for Japanese institutions who wish to increase their number of international students.

The top five reasons Chinese, Vietnamese, Nepalese, South Korean and Taiwanese students choose to study at their institution overseas:

    1. Impact of the qualification on their future career
    2. Reputation of the institution
    3. Specific course title
    4. Personal safety and security
    5. Reputation of the country’s education system

If we wish to summarise the data to make it simple, the three key messages that any institution should be emphasizing are CAREER, REPUTATION and SAFETY & SECURITY.


The reality is that students who make the choice to study overseas are looking for qualifications that will enhance their chances to get a good job and pursue a career. They don’t make the decision to travel overseas lightly and they need to know the impact on their future employment. Institutions need to spell this out in all their marketing and communications

Our top ten tips to foreground CAREER.

    1. You need to ensure that each qualification has a clear signposting on how it will benefit your students’ future careers.
    2. You need to include alumni success examples of students who have built great careers because of their qualification from your institution.
    3. You need to have a raft of recommendations from employers indicating how willing they are to employ students from your institution. These should be not merely local employers, but large-scale multinationals who have centres across the world.
    4. You need to have lecturers/professors who have real world experience of employment outside the halls of academia and can offer road maps and guidance to students.
    5. You need to build qualifications/licenses into your degrees that have real world applications. For example, degree programmes are increasingly building into their curricula relevant industry certifications.
    6. You need to create opportunities for students to network with industry professionals in the form of guest lectures, network nights etc.
    7. You need a range of student clubs and societies related to their chosen profession with built in networking opportunities.
    8. You need an array of internships both virtual and face-to-face that students can benefit from.
    9. You need opportunities for paid work during their study both in term and during the holiday.
    10. You need post-study work opportunities for your international graduates.


Obviously, an institution’s reputation is not built overnight, and to a large extent the rankings have been seen as a suitable proxy for reputation. This is slightly misguided since global rankings are very much focused on research output and neglect the key teaching aspect in most of their indices.

Of course, this does not negate that the reality that a high place in one of the rankings should be part of your reputation strategy. You need to foreground any positive data about your institution on social media and on the website.

The work we do at i-graduate is very much focused on the current student experience. We believe that recommendation by your current international students is vital in driving new international students to your campuses. This has become even clearer in the last few years when international students want to hear from current student experiences in order to make a decision about where they will go. It is not unlike customer reviews of hotels or restaurants when you read the reviews before you book a restaurant or hotel. You don’t necessarily trust the website of the hotel/restaurant nor are you overly impressed by the number of stars. Choosing an institution is one of the biggest life decisions that you will have to make, and more and more students are relying on their peers to help them make that decision.

So how do you ensure positive word of mouth? Get the current experience right and delight your existing students in all that you do. Our International Student Barometer data covers the key areas of Living, Learning and Support Services as well as Overall Recommendation. Through detailed analysis we know what drives recommendation and, based on our 2020 global data, the individual items with the strongest correlations to propensity to recommend are:

    1. Value for money
    2. Overall happiness
    3. Overall satisfaction
    4. Overall learning satisfaction
    5. Overall support satisfaction
    6. Overall COVID -19 response
    7. Learning that will help students get a good job
    8. The organization and smooth running of the program

It is unsurprising that questions about overall satisfaction, happiness and value for money should figure high in this correlation, but it is also notable that satisfaction with ‘learning that will help me get a good job’ is a strong indicator of whether students will recommend and become positive ambassadors. So it is clear that building that strong connection between curricula, learning and the world of work will lead your students to recommend your institution.


We know that key to maintaining student flows is the perception that the country, the city and the institution provide a safe place for a young person to study. This has become even more pronounced over the last few years with a rise in nationalism in some countries and the pandemic has to some extent exacerbated this.

We have seen recent hate attacks on Asian-Americans in the US, and we know that this will have a detrimental effect on the perception of the US as a safe place for Asian students.

There were several well publicized attacks against Indian students in Australian in 2009 which inevitable led to a decline in Indian student numbers of around 46% immediately afterwards.

Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world and the streets of Tokyo are regarded as the safest of all the world’s capitals. It’s a message that institutions need to emphasise to prospective students and their parents since we know from our data that it is a key factor in choosing an overseas destination.


While the three key messages above highlight areas that tend to be of most importance to international students across the board regardless of nationality, there is considerable value in looking in more detail at the data to see how views vary between nationality groups. International students from Nepal and Vietnam are notably more likely than those from other nationalities to see opportunities to work while studying and the availability of scholarships and bursaries as important; this is not surprising given the relative economic position of those countries. Proximity to home is notably more important to Nepalese students than others. In fact, that at least 90% of Nepalese students see almost all factors as important could be seen as an indication that they, more than other nationalities, are looking for the ‘complete package’ in an international study destination.

Having a detailed understanding of the motivations and experiences of students from different target markets is important for institutions in allowing them to differentiate messaging and campaigns.

Looking at the data, it is also noteworthy that Nepalese and Vietnamese students see the opportunities to work whilst studying as very important and also the availability of scholarships and bursaries. This is not surprising given the relative economic position of those countries and the desire for students to be able to fund their studies whilst working in part-time jobs. So it is key for institutions who are wishing to recruit from certain markets to differentiate their messaging based on students’ motivations.


We know that understanding the student experience, from decision-making through to how well-prepared students feel for the world post-graduation, is critical for building a strong and sustainable international student market. For Japanese institutions to achieve their desires to increase their international student flow it is vital that they gather insights into why their current students have chosen to come to their institution and whether they are satisfied with their experience of learning and living. We know that delighted students now will create a virtuous circle of positive word-of-mouth ensuring increasing numbers of international students to your campuses in the future.

i-graduateは 世界中の機関と協力して、学生の経験に対する理解を深め、戦略的な意思決定に情報を提供しています。現在、日本でも学生バロメーターをご利用できるようになりました。



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