How will Japanese students view studying abroad after COVID?

Once travel restrictions lift in Japan, how likely are students to consider a study abroad program? SAF experts on the ground weigh in with their insights.

The pandemic has virtually paralyzed the world for more than a year, but with vaccine programs being rolled out in several countries, there’s a palpable sense that the end of the ordeal could finally be on the horizon. 

Once vaccination becomes commonplace in Japan and restrictions begin to loosen, how will its student population react? Will the newly reinstated opportunity to travel freely and study abroad remain as appealing as before, or will the uncertainty of a post-pandemic world keep students away from study abroad programs? 

Carol Carmody, Senior Associate Vice President for the Study Abroad Foundation (SAF), believes that these kinds of decisions by students are often made with a view towards how their home country as a whole reacts and behaves. 

“[At the onset of the pandemic] we found ourselves with many students [abroad] from Japan who were struggling to make sense of what was happening around them,” says Carmody, speaking at “Japan in Focus,” part of a webinar series hosted by SAF. “From our perspective, it seemed that Japanese students were evaluating their reality through the lens of what was happening back home in Japan, and obviously, this concerned us.”

It is understandable why students may have reservations about if and when they return to study abroad programs. For many pupils, their future plans are inextricably linked to their home universities, and by extension, the Japanese government. 

“There’s a strong aversion within universities to avoid making any decisions that might be seen as going against government recommendations,” says Brett Rumminger, Director of SAF Japan. “Universities will generally not allow students to travel abroad to a country unless the government decrees the country to be at a permissible safety level, and currently under COVID, no countries meet the requirements.” 

As a result, many Japanese students who had hoped to study abroad this year have moved online, enrolling in virtual language courses taught by foreign faculty at their home universities. While this presents a challenge, says Rumminger, he believes that students will still value the overall cultural experience afforded by overseas institutions in a post-pandemic world.

“We need to remember that Japanese students at Japanese universities are generally studying in courses only with other Japanese students. From our perspective, the most important benefits that SAF and host universities can bring is a diversity of students and a high level of interaction with native speakers.”

While Rumminger predicts that the lingering effects of COVID-19 will increase acceptance of virtual education, even after travel restrictions are lifted, the main attraction for Japanese students will be the level of interaction that students have with native-speaking students and the local community. For that reason, he is confident that the appeal of study abroad programs will remain strong. 

“SAF is bullish on the Japanese market,” says Rumminger. “There are opportunities on the horizon in Japan and we look forward to working with partner institutions to bring more Japanese students to their campuses.”

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William Haglund

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