More UK students head for Japan as part of their studies

7 June 2019

The UK's higher education system regards itself, quite rightly, as highly international, and prides itself on attracting students from across the world to come and study at its universities.

However, UK universities lag behind their competitors when it comes to the number of home students spending a period of time studying, working or volunteering overseas as part of their degree.

This picture is – gradually – beginning to change. Since 2017, Universities UK International's Go International: Stand Out campaign has raised the profile of outward student mobility within the sector at large, while institutions have introduced innovative ways of encouraging their students to go overseas during their degree. Much of this focus has been on offering more flexible and short-term opportunities, and integrating mobility into domestic programmes and internships, both ways to encourage a wider range of students to become mobile.

Modest overall growth in total numbers of mobile UK students has been accompanied by greater diversification. It is still the case that Europe and the global anglosphere are the main destinations for mobile UK students. It is promising, however, to see the higher rate of year on year growth of UK students spending periods of mobility further afield.

A case in point is Japan. In 2017/18 an estimated total of 930 UK students spent a period of mobility in Japan, an increase of around of around 25% from 2016/17, and 37% compared with 2015/16 (HESA). In a large sector these are small overall numbers, but significant growth. Partly this is a result of UK universities strengthening their partnerships with their Japanese counterparts and coordinating more exchange agreements and short-term opportunities outside of the framework of Japanese Studies programmes. It may also reflect a growing interest in Japan in the UK in general, and among young people in particular.

But there's also a Japanese side to this story. Since 2012, Shinzo Abe's government has introduced various policy initiatives channelling funding into university internationalisation, deployed as a salve to Japan's demographic deficit, economic stagnation and perceived cultural isolation. In response, Japanese universities have massively increased their international student recruitment. They are now turning their attention to diversifying international student engagement beyond Asia, as well as providing global exposure to their domestic students.

Japanese universities recognise that short term exchange agreements are most likely to be successful – the number of Japanese students on short-term mobility programmes has increased 430% since 2010. Short-term agreements mitigate the barriers to mobility which recur both in the UK and Japan: the high costs of accommodation and living costs during exchange; anxiety about language abilities; challenges of credit transfer and academic timetabling; student concerns about entering the workplace. Short-term mobilities also lay the foundations for students to engage internationally more substantively in the future and contribute to an 'internationalisation at home' agenda.

The following case-studies reflect the diversity of short-term programmes operating between the UK and Japan.


© University of Suffolk

University of Suffolk and Keio University

Suffolk and Keio have had an exchange programme for their nursing students for almost twenty years. The exchange sees groups of nursing students and staff members from the two universities spend up to two weeks at the partner institution, to learn about the challenges of nursing in an ageing society, and to experience nursing theory and practice in a different national context. As well as group work, lectures and observation at Keio University Hospital, Suffolk students also engage with home nursing care and community visits. As part of the exchange agreement, Keio University supports the accommodation of Suffolk students during the study tour in Japan.

"With a more global economy, and the increasing pressures on healthcare systems, we need to learn about different ways of healthcare delivery… when I am in Japan I will be able to see what models of care they use, and, as they also have a nursing shortage, I am interested in seeing what technologies they are utilising", Suffolk Nursing student

© Student exhibition at Musashino Art University, Tokyo, Reading School of Art, University of Reading, 2018

University of Reading and Musashino Art University

In 2015 Reading's School of Arts and Communication Design joined an existing three-way mobility partnership with Musashino Art University in Tokyo, Seoul Institute of the Arts and Shanghai Institute of Visual Arts. The partnership, hosted annually for between one and two weeks, sees a group of final-year undergraduates or postgraduates from Reading joining Japanese, Korea and Chinese peers in developing a joint exhibition and co-producing workshops, which feeds into their end of year assessments. When the programme was in Japan, the Reading students and staff were hosted in subsidised accommodation through the university. Students contribute around a third of the costs of the programme, with the rest covered by the School and University.

"The best part of our trip was the chance to meet other artists, dancers, photographers and designers and look at the work and research they are working on. Being part of a wider picture, and being immersed and contributing to an exhibition like this, felt very significant." Reading MA Fine Art student

Imperial College London and Tokyo Tech

In 2018 Imperial College London and Tokyo Tech initiated their summer Global Fellows Programme. The Programme sees around 20 Imperial PhD students visit Tokyo Tech on a five-day professional skills and development programme, with around half that number staying on for a three-week research visit. The programme is structured around one of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, with the 2018 group working on 'Climate Action'. The programme is managed through partnerships between the Graduate School and international offices at both institutions, with significant input from the PhD students themselves, as well as leading academics and PhD supervisors. The programme was also built into an existing research partnership between the universities. It was stimulated in part by Tokyo Tech's status as a designated 'Top Global University', with associated funding. In summer 2019, a group of Tokyo Tech PhD students will visit London.

" Overall, it was a tremendous learning experience that allowed me not only to discover working in a Japanese research culture (remember to always say "otsukare sama desu" at the end of the day!), but also meeting talented PhD researchers from various backgrounds and building lifelong connections with them.", Imperial PhD student

© Chiba University 

Chiba University and Glasgow School of Art

Chiba University has had an exchange partnership with the Glasgow School of Art since 2011, initiated through Chiba's Continents Design Education Program (CODE). The CODE programme uses agreements with elite institutions in Europe and the USA to provide its design school students with  international experiences. Chiba's agreement with GSA supports semester-long student exchange as well as two-week Collaborative Design Workshops in Japan or Scotland, and projects with Parsons School in New York. The different academic calendars in Scotland and Japan have complicated exchange agreements, but flexibility and options for short-term collaboration have mitigated this challenge. Until 2016 Chiba's CODE program was supported by the Re-Inventing Japan Project of the Japanese Ministry of Education. Since then, the university has supported it internally.

Looking ahead

Folding international mobility into the university experience of domestic students is a growing priority for both UK and Japanese universities. As these cases show, strong partnerships, good communication and a clear thematic focus are central to sustainable student exchange agreements.

UUKi has worked with the Japan Association for National Universities, as well as the British Council in Japan, to support universities to initiate new partnerships and strengthen existing ones. In June a delegation of Japanese universities organised by JANU will be visiting the UK, and UUKi will be hosting a day-long UK-Japan University Dialogue on the 12th June at Woburn House, London. An additional mobility workshop will be held at the University of Manchester in the afternoon of the 13th June. To take part in these events, and for further details on the participating Japanese universities, please contact Nick Mithen, Policy Officer (Asia).


Long-term and short-term mobility from the UK to Japan is supported through a range of bodies, the main ones being:

-       The Japanese Ministry of Education (MEXT)

-       The Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS)

-       The Japan Student Services Organisation (JASSO)

-       The British Association for Japanese Studies (BAJS)

-       Japan Foundation in London

-       Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation

-       Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation

In 2018 the Japanese Ministry of Justice announced plans to change visa regulations to make it easier for international students to work in Japan post-study, designed to allow international students to remain for up to two years in Japan, and to be eligible for employment outside of their study field. The Japan Student Services Organisation publishes an annual report support international students to find post-study work opportunities

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