Even in this age of globalization, the number of students going abroad is in serious decline. In recent years, I had conducted an informal survey on the subject of overseas experience among university students and found that about a third of them, most of them female, had three months or more of overseas experience. Another third, mostly male students, had two weeks or even less of overseas travel. The remaining third had never been overseas, and most of them didn’t even hold passports.

By contrast, U.S. students are studying abroad in record numbers. According to the IIE, the number of Americans studying abroad increased by 8% in the 2006/7 academic year, part of a decade that saw unprecedented growth in the number of U.S. students receiving academic credit for their experience abroad, with an increase of close to 150%, from less than 100,000 to nearly 250,000 in 2007.

At the same time Asia, outside of Japan, is the region sending the most students to the U.S., with increases of 10% every year for the last decade. For example, in the 1994 and 1995 academic years, the number of Japanese students studying in the U.S. totaled 45,000; by 2006-2007, it had declined to 35,000. At the same time, by contrast, last year China sent 98,510 grad and undergrad students to the U.S., and India over 100,000. The “stay rates,” that is the number of students who receive advanced degrees, such as PhDs, and then stay to pursue research, are similarly skewed. According to data from the Oak Ridge Institute for Science & Engineering, for PhD recipients who remained in the U.S. after 5 years, the rate for China was 91% and for India it was 81%. Japan is way down the list at 33%.

Why bother with overseas experience?
By going abroad, students gain a wider perspective and a global viewpoint. They expand their networks, exchange ideas, and learn how to debate and discuss respectfully. They get an idea of the breadth of the world, and the wants and needs that drive the actions of people in other parts of the world. They also get used to differences – monocultural people have a tough time when going overseas for the first time, particularly in dealing with foreigners in this increasingly global world. Since Japan is a country with relatively few foreigners in the population, Japanese within Japan don’t have many chances to speak English or interact with foreigners.

People need to learn to adapt to different ways of thinking – interacting with different cultures, building relationships, getting comfortable with other nationalities and so on – and to do this at a young age. It is important to do this at the university level at the latest, though high school exchange programs should also be looked into. Once people go into the work force, it is too late. By the time they reach the corporate career level, the learning process is different – less forgiving of mistakes, and less tolerant of people who are trying to find their feet in a new situation. Japan educates its students to conform, memorize and fear failure – whereas in this globalized world, cooperation, team building, interaction, discussion, negotiation and understanding are critical qualities.

Study abroad also promotes independent thinking, a crucial attribute of strong leaders with vision.

Finally, and this is perhaps most important, experience abroad in an international environment teaches people to be comfortable with English. Like it or not, English is the language of global business, science, diplomacy, and most other international interactions. At a time when China (incredibly) has more English speakers than the U.S., yes, it matters whether Japanese speak – not just speak but are comfortable using – English. If you want to be effective on the global stage, then you must be confident in English, and so must your key staff.

However, English proficiency among Japanese college grads, as indicated by TOEFL scores, is the lowest among 27 Asian countries. This is a recurring issue for Japan. Japanese students supposedly “learn” English for 6-7 years in junior, middle and high school. However, they can’t really use it or speak it, since this learning amounts to little more than memorizing word lists, taking tests and obsessing about TOEFL/TOEIC scores. And with little opportunity to use English in real situations, the students lack the confidence to use their language skills and little motivation to perfect them. Having this scholarship program available would help in efforts to overhaul English education in Japanese schools – if students expect to go overseas in the near future, then the focus will shift to language they can use, rather than passing tests.

Spending time abroad helps people understand that the common language of the world today is not proper, flawless English; it is, in fact, “broken English.” Experiencing this first-hand and understanding it allows people to be more confident, relaxed and effective when interacting within this globalized world in spite of their imperfect English. This in turn gives them the freedom and ability to work with people from a variety of cultures, backgrounds and ways of thinking. And that is a major advantage for companies and other organizations with an interest in operating overseas.

Indeed, speaking is only half the issue. Understanding, accepting and expressing different viewpoints – culturally, technically, etc. – are just as important. Silicon Valley, to take a famous example, is not so much a place as a way of thinking. The Americans there are part French, English, German, Chinese, Japanese, and on and on. All of them bring their quirks, feelings, emotions, understanding, culture, background, etc., as they proactively – regardless of age or seniority – debate, discuss and argue to create the best product possible. In Japan, in contrast, there is little debate; everything ends up looking like conventional Japanese since only the most senior advice gets implemented.

Next time I’ll look at some of the barriers to creating a study abroad program.  Your comments are always welcome.