March 2015 | www.selectasset.com
It's back to school time, but where to go

In early April, a new school year will begin in Japan. Some kids, who have managed to survive the country’s perplexing exam process will be moving on to private, national and public funded secondary schools, while both foreigners from overseas and Japanese will be seeking higher education.  With over 700 universities, encompassing public, private and national schools, and a reputation as a land that’s both on the cutting edge of new technological development and abundant in modern and traditional cultural riches, Japan is in many ways an ideal destination for study.

It is not uncommon to find exchange students spending a semester or more in Japan. For those wondering if its universities are the right institutions to entrust their education, questions of cost, admissions requirements and the quality of academic and campus life will be key considerations.

What’s it going to cost?

High school education in Japan can be quite expensive, with tuition costs of around one million yen a year considered normal, so Japanese universities should be considered in this context. Indeed, undergraduate courses tend to hover around a similar annual figure.

A 2012 article in Business Week lists the average education costs for a Japanese university (tuition, books and other educational expenses) at $11,865, which while far from cheap, does make Japan slightly more affordable than the United States – although this is subject to fluctuations in exchange rates. Expenses can be broken down into entrance exams (about ¥20,000 yen), admission fees for new students and tuition fees charged either annually or by semester.

National and local schools are often half the cost of private universities. Undergraduate costs for new enrollments at Sophia University, a Jesuit School, for the year 2015 range from 1.2 to 1.7 million yen depending on the faculty, including tuition and entrance fees. New students at Waseda University’s School of International Liberal Studies (SILS) should expect to pay something similar, with tuition and admission fees totaling around 1.6 million yen for the first year (based on April 2014 figures).

Overseas students should check out Japan’s Global 30 program. It is a group of 13 top Japanese universities that offer courses conducted entirely in English. Many of these highly regarded universities make their home in Tokyo, although with top ranked schools based in the capital costs start to creep above the average.

A bit farther north from Tokyo, Global 30 member Tohoku University in Sendai offers undergraduate tuition fees totaling a little over half a million yen a year plus entrance fees, plus application and admission fees totaling around 300,000 yen. The University of Tsukuba in Ibaraki has similar rates

Global 30 has an informative, easy-to-navigate website with links to the 13 universities (most have English information). Those who want to know more, can visit: http://www.uni.international.mext.go.jp/

While Philadelphia is it’s home in the United States, Temple University operates a campus in Tokyo, which is the largest of any foreign university in Japan. Costs at Temple vary greatly depending on how many credits are being taken, but a full time student can expect to pay around one million yen a year in tuition fees and educational expenses.

Of course, there are a variety of scholarships and assistance programs to help with these costs, such as those offered by the government, which has had a scholarship system for international students in place since 1954, and the universities themselves in association with various foundations, alumni associations and companies. Waseda University notes that in 2013 over 20,000 of its students took advantage of about 250 scholarship programs of various types, with another 120 different scholarships available for international students.

How to get in

In most cases, to be eligible to apply for a Japanese university or special training college, students must have completed 12 or more years of combined primary and secondary education. Those who do not meet this requirement must complete a college preparatory course.

The Examination for Japanese University Admission for Foreign Students (EJU) is what most Japanese colleges use to evaluate the Japanese language level and basic academic skills of applicants from overseas. Depending on what language your courses will be offered in, the test can be taken in English or Japanese (excluding, of course, the Japanese language proficiency section).  You can find out all about the EJU in English here: http://www.jasso.go.jp/eju/index_e.html

In addition to the EJU, universities may set their own entrance exams and interview procedures. Some request the results of other countries standardized exams, such as America’s SAT. Some universities require overseas students to fly to Japan to take part in this process, although not all. However, for the most part the Global 30 initiative was established to provide study opportunities with no Japanese language requirements and to allow overseas students to complete entrance exams and interviews remotely from their home countries.

What’s student life like

For students in English language learning environments, the academic experience may not differ so much from what they are used to. Professors are often foreign, and most of their fellow students will be from overseas, or at least familiar with the academic expectations of overseas schools.

We spoke to Matthew, an American student currently taking a second degree at Sophia University, and he notes that while his overall experience is relatively consistent with his previous college life in the U.S.A., there are differences in the academic culture. For example the choice of school is often more important to students than the subject they plan to study.

“Bureaucracy is very inflexible,” he adds, “I was a day late handing in a scholarship form and was told flat-out, ‘Sorry, there’s nothing we can do.’ It might've been the difference between me continuing or dropping out, so I kind of assumed they'd have been a little more accommodating, especially with higher graduation rates in mind.”

Adam Gyenes is a PhD scholar at Osaka University researching the internationalization of education at Japanese universities, and has worked as a lecturer at several Tokyo universities. Japanese universities have had a reputation as places where students expect a safe landing after surviving “exam hell” to gain admission. They assume they can just coast to graduation. However, Gyenes believes those days are past.

“Maybe in the bubble era that was the case,” Gyenes says, “but now there is no guarantee of a job at the end of the four years, so students are more motivated and demand more from the colleges. The new international programs are looking to compete internationally, which drives up standards.”

Gyenes sounds a note of caution on academics, however, noting that the relative newness of many of the international programs has inevitably led to some teething problems and patchy standards.

Despite the emphasis of programs like Global 30 on high-end institutions, there is a range of opportunities for non-Japanese students here. In the end, Japan’s growing eagerness to globalize its educational institutions, with greater emphasis in both academia and government to encourage overseas students, seems to be the opening that will provide enticing opportunities for those willing to take them.