Japan – rebuilding the international student market

The strict closure of borders by the Japanese government during the COVID pandemic and the relative caution in reopening has had fairly devastating impacts on many sectors. For the inbound international student market in Japan, the results have been severe. Following years of national strategies focusing on increasing the number of international students at Japanese higher education institutions, numbers peaked in 2020, falling in 2021 and further still in 2022. This article looks at the factors at play as Japan sets ambitious targets for international student numbers by 2026.

The Japanese government’s newly declared goal is to return to pre-pandemic numbers and by 2026 they wish to have 300,000 international students. There is some debate over how this is to be achieved, but it includes an interesting shift in focus to recruitment from ASEAN countries and, in addition, an emphasis on priority areas such as engineering, medicine, social sciences and agriculture.

This is an ambitious goal and to achieve these targets, institutions and government must really understand how students choose study destinations. There is a sense though that both institutions and government lack enough data on the drivers and motivations for international study.

Factors affecting choice of institution

At Tribal i-graduate we know from our most recent publicly available data that the chief drivers globally for choosing an overseas institution are largely the same as they were pre-COVID:

  • Impact of the qualification on students’ future career
  • Reputation of the institution
  • Quality of research
  • Specific course title
  • Earning potential of students’ chosen degree from the institution
  • Personal safety and security

Factors that are most important to students are similar regardless of students’ field of study or nationality. And, with its large number of highly regarded higher education institutions and a reputation for being a safe destination, at a broad level, Japan as a whole does well in these areas.

However, with the Japanese government’s shift in focus towards recruiting particular types of international students, to best understand how to attract these priority groups it is key to understand the factors that they see as important in choosing a study destination.

The unprecedented insight offered by the International Student Barometer can give a deeper understanding of the key reasons students might choose Japan as a study destination and allow a shaping of the marketing, messaging and recruitment approach.

The importance of future opportunities

For international students from ASEAN countries, for example, ‘future opportunities’ are a particularly important factor. This concerns the ability to undertake future study after their initial studies, as well as work post-study and the potential for future permanent residence in country.

We know that post-study work opportunities are a key driver for international students globally and Japan could benefit from being more explicit in highlighting these opportunities either through specific policies or with case studies of students who have created a successful career for themselves in Japan.

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The cost of overseas education is also more likely to play an important role in the decision-making process of ASEAN students, and a country or institution that has a wide range of scholarships will benefit in the long term. Japan’s cost of education for international students does compare very favourably with the UK, US and Australia despite the relatively high cost of living.

Acknowledging the characteristics of students in priority areas

There are also some interesting patterns in motivations by subject area that it’s useful to understand. Engineering students, for example, a priority group under the new plans, are, at postgraduate level, more likely than average to see reputation of an individual academic supervisor or professor as important. So, this is clearly a key factor to highlight in marketing and recruitment activities.

Engineering students also see permanent residence as particularly important and despite the political obstacles in Japan it might be seen as important to give this as a potential option to high-achieving engineering students who can benefit Japan in the long term with their skills.

Understanding the decision-making of international students to help meet strategic goals

These are just a few examples of the differences between different groups of international students in terms of motivations for choosing an institution, and how an understanding of these can be used in increasing international student numbers, particularly in priority groups.

Unlike institutions in some countries, the prime driver of international student recruitment in Japan tends not to be financial, but rather the desire to internationalise institutions and expose local students and wider society to a diversity of cultures. In light of demographics in Japan, there is also the added motivation of attracting international students to become part of a highly-skilled future workforce.

For renewed, targeted and sustainable growth in the international student market in Japan, it will be key to fully understand the motivations and experience of international students as they return to the country and build on or tweak strategy, offerings and marketing activities where required.

The Student Barometer helps institutions make informed decisions to enhance the domestic and international student experience and drive successful recruitment and marketing strategies.

Watch a short presentation for leaders in Japanese universities via the link below:

Improving the student experience, creating a network of international alumni, and making your institution a top choice for international students globally – an introduction to the Student Barometer


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