By Matthew Knott, News Editor of Study Travel Magazine

Japan’s international education sector received a welcome boost this week with the news that the number of overseas students in universities returned to growth. 

After three years of declines for the universities and colleges, figures rebounded in 2014 and were the second highest ever. A superficial analysis of the international recruitment graph over the last five years would indicate that the declines coincided with the earthquake and tsunami of 2011, but I suspect the historically high yen during the period of decline had more of an impact. With the currency sliding back to more favourable levels over the last 18 months, the country should be well placed for further growth.

An extraordinary aspect of the data was the fact that the overall increase was achieved while the two largest markets continued to decline. Both China and Korea have been involved with diplomatic spats and territorial disputes with Japan in recent times – again probably more of a factor than the tsunami – but plans to diversify recruitment have paid dividends.

Vietnam, for example, increased by a phenomenal 91 per cent, overtaking Korea in the process. There was double-digit growth from several other Asian countries as well.

Japan is in the eighth largest destination country for international student mobility at higher education level with three per cent global market share, according to the latest figures from the OECD, but is unique in the top ten as being the only country whose language is not spoken elsewhere.

The Japanese government has been investing heavily in the promotion of international education – both inbound and outbound – and is providing funding to some of the top universities to expand their English-delivered portfolios, which may now be paying dividends.

But substantial growth of 37 per cent in the number of student visa-holding international students on long-term language programmes, many of them intending no doubt to progress on to university, indicates a residual interest in the Japanese language and the country itself. The Japanese government is loosening immigration policy, particularly in relation to students, and corporations are increasingly seeking globally experienced staff, whether that be Japanese that have studied abroad or foreigners that have lived in Japan.

Despite being overtaken by China, Japan remains the world’s third largest economy and boasts a far higher per capita GDP, so will continue to appeal to students planning to work and settle after study if immigration conditions remain favourable.

The government’s aim of 300,000 students by 2020 looks fanciful, but the country could certainly increase its market share. And as we have reported previously, many universities are flirting with the idea of using agents more openly and the Japanese agency association JAOS has been actively promoting this channel of recruitment to the country’s institutions, something that would certainly further enhance growth.

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