September 23, 2016 11:15 am JST

Japan's top schools draw Chinese seeking fresh start

KAZUHIRO FURUYAMA, Nikkei staff writer

Waseda University is highly regarded by Chinese.

TOKYO -- Even as Chinese students clamor to study at elite Japanese universities, the trend is not being greeted with the unreserved joy one might expect from institutions eager to expand their global footprint. Top schools losing their international prestige are becoming a refuge for students on the losing end of China's fierce admissions competition, who hope to turn their prospects around overseas.

A second chance in Japan

"If I'd stayed at my school in China, my future probably would've been closed off," a student who began studying human sciences at Tokyo's Waseda University in April said with a quiet smile. The 22-year-old from Liaoning Province was interviewed at a cram school here that she had attended until last year.

For two years before going to Japan in July 2014, "I was enrolled at a college whose level was so low that I wasn't sure I could get a job even if I graduated," she said with a touch of self-deprecation. She studied furiously over three years of high school for China's infamously grueling entrance examination, from 7 a.m. to midnight each day, driven by the fear that missing out on a big-name institution would shut her out of a job. The stress was overwhelming.

When she bombed despite these efforts, she thought her life was over, she said. The schools available to her with her scores were far below what she had hoped for, but with little choice in the matter, she enrolled anyway.

Surrounded by slackers and worried about her future, she started talking about studying abroad. In the end, she decided to start over in Japan. "If I tried hard one more time and got into a good school, I could join a good company and get a good life," she said.

She is far from the only Chinese student to make that choice.

Chinese teaching Chinese

Coach Academy is a five-minute walk from JR Shin-Okubo Station in Tokyo, a little way off from a downtown area filled with ethnic restaurants and Japanese-language schools. The preparatory school targets Chinese students aspiring to enter Japanese universities and graduate schools. All classes are taught in Chinese.

After its 2008 founding, the academy rapidly developed a reputation for sending students to exclusive colleges. Some 1,200 students are now on its rolls.

Students attend separate language schools in Tokyo and nearby Kanagawa and Chiba prefectures. They study Japanese in the morning before congregating at Coach Academy in the afternoon for test preparation until 9 p.m., with no breaks for weekends. Even when a massive typhoon struck the region last month, Chinese students still poured into the building.

This Spartan regimen prepares students to pass admissions tests in a year to a year and a half, according to the school.

A wall on the building's first floor displays the names and schools of students who have passed their exams. Waseda and the University of Tokyo are popular choices. "Their name recognition is exceptional even in China," said President Yang Ge. "Chinese care about prestige. They won't hesitate to study abroad if it's for the sake of burnishing their academic credentials."

Higher education's Louis Vuitton

Waseda carries a particular cachet in China, exceeding that of institutions considered similarly prestigious in Japan, such as Keio University or Hitotsubashi University. "It attracts brand-loving Chinese in the same way as a Louis Vuitton bag," Yang explained.

The number of Chinese students at Waseda has risen 40% over five years to 2,550 in May, making up half of the international contingent. Chinese enrollment at the University of Tokyo has grown at a similar rate.

What sort of students are taking this leap? "About half failed college or graduate school entrance exams," Yang said.

Among them is a 21-year-old who passed the test for Waseda's Graduate School of Economics in July. The student came to Japan last October, enrolling in Coach Academy's graduate school course. She failed to make the grade for the Chinese undergraduate institution where she had hoped to study economics. Her "plan B" -- studying Japanese at a different college and economics in graduate school -- also fell through. Though she says she was interested in Japan from the outset, she had also heard that the competition for graduate school was less cutthroat than in China.

Some 7 million people graduate from Chinese colleges each year. A growing number pursue a graduate degree, which provides an edge in the job market and earns better treatment after landing a position. But a bigger motivation than either of these is to cast their educational background in a more favorable light.

"There are Chinese students who want a Waseda graduate school as the last institution on their academic record," admitted Masaki Tamada, who heads the university's international admissions office. Yang, too, noted a trend toward what he called "academic laundering."

High stakes

Unlike in Japan, which has different test dates for different schools, more than 9 million Chinese students sit for the nationwide gaokao exam at the same time in June. "They take this test once a year, and the results determine what colleges they can get into," said Hirotaka Nanbu, a professor at Kyoto University's Graduate School of Education and an expert in the process.

Some faint from the pressure, and cheating is uncovered every year. The furor owes to the fact that the prestige of the school a student attends corresponds closely with job options after graduation.

Colleges are ranked in clear tiers. The first boasts such big names as Peking University and Tsinghua University. The University of Shanghai for Science and Technology sits on the second tier, while the third encompasses such institutions as Sichuan University Jinjiang College. Students angling for a job at a good company focus on the top tier.

"Japan is attractive because it offers a lot more chances in comparison," said Yuan Lie, president of Rakusho Japan, a Tokyo-based agency that sends 2,500 Chinese students a year to Japan. "Testing for foreign students considers such factors as written exams, interviews and Japanese-language ability as a whole, so even if you come up short in one area, you can still pass if you work hard on the others," Yuan said.

The price tag for Japanese colleges is lower than in Europe or the U.S., another point in the country's favor.

Prep schools are proliferating in response to this trend. Abitus, a Tokyo-based company that provides training for professional certifications, opened a school for Chinese students, named Seedom, in January of last year. Lecturers include Chinese attendees of such institutions as the University of Tokyo, Hitotsubashi and the Tokyo Institute of Technology.

"This is a business opportunity" for the company, which also runs Japanese-language schools, said President Toyoaki Miwa.

Of the first class of 40 students that graduated in March, nearly 90% were accepted into the well-regarded "MARCH" schools: Meiji University, Aoyama Gakuin University, Rikkyo University, Chuo University and Hosei University. Waseda, Keio and Kyoto University were represented as well.

"Graduating from a MARCH-level school in Japan is sometimes considered better when job-hunting than a second-tier [Chinese] school," a Seedom assistant manager said.

Fall from grace

Contrary to what one might expect from this boom, the international prestige of elite Japanese schools has been in decline for some time.

The ranking of Asian universities released in June by the U.K.'s venerable Times Higher Education magazine was an unpleasant shock in Japan. The University of Tokyo, which topped the list in 2015, fell to seventh place, while Kyoto University sank from ninth to 11th. Meanwhile, Peking University and Tsinghua ranked second and fifth, respectively.

Students at China's top-tier universities are choosing to study abroad in Europe and the U.S., not Japan. Japanese institutions are trying to woo exceptional Chinese students, but "we can't beat top Western universities in a fair fight," sighed a source at a well-known private university in Tokyo. "The only students coming here are the ones who like Japan."

The public and private sectors are working together to globalize Japanese schools by drawing more international students. Leading universities selected by the education ministry's Top Global Universities project aim to bring international enrollment into the thousands in a decade. But many depend on Chinese students to make up the numbers, raising questions as to whether this really counts as "global."

Hosei University, one of the schools selected, had 500 international students in May, of whom 290 are Chinese. The college plans to boost the total to 3,000 by 2024. To this end, it has introduced a broader array of testing options and increased the number of available seats.

But the surge in foreign students has sparked an outcry from staff, who worry that higher acceptance rates will mean lower-quality students. The influx has created a heavier workload for faculty as well.

Yet with Chinese students still seeking the cachet of Japan's brand, and globally minded administrators forced to rely on them, the boom looks unlikely to fade anytime soon.

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