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A unique approach to global education

Interview - March 12, 2024

This interview with the President of Akita International University provides a comprehensive overview of the institution's unique approach to global education. Despite the challenges associated with being a relatively young university, the conversation delves into the distinctive value propositions for studying in Japan, the impact of digital technologies on education, strategies to support diverse student populations, and the university's initiatives, including the CREST program. The president emphasizes the importance of blending profound thought with creative energy and decisive action, shaping global leaders who can contribute to societal value.

MONTE CASSIM, PRESIDENT OF AKITA INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY
MONTE CASSIM | PRESIDENT OF AKITA INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY

Japan, with its numerous globally ranked academic institutions and low financial barriers to entry, has been widely acclaimed as an excellent destination for foreign students aiming to join the international workforce. However, the ongoing process of internationalization, coupled with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and concerns about language, distance, and long-term employment prospects, has resulted in a significant decline in international student enrollments. From a university standpoint, what do you perceive as the distinctive value of studying in Japan?

Firstly, the relatively low tuition cost holds significant importance for students worldwide. I appreciate the attitude of Japanese universities, who view foreign students not merely as part of the global education market but as potential future leaders of society. This distinction is crucial.

Secondly, Japan’s standing as a nation at the forefront of advanced science and technology. All universities here maintain equipment and facilities that are regularly updated, offering students access to the latest tools and techniques.

Thirdly, many universities collaborate with industries, serving as a conduit for students to enter diverse sectors. Although industry internships and joint projects might appear subtle in pedagogic terms, they can serve as a gateway to valuable opportunities.

Moreover, Japan boasts a remarkably stable environment, even amidst global economic downturns. Punctual trains and continuously improving infrastructure contribute to this stability and safety. It is imperative to highlight these advantages.

 

Japan’s reputation for advanced science and technology contrasts with criticism regarding its slow embrace of digital technologies. While DX and the integration of ICT have revolutionized education globally, Japan’s cultural emphasis on handwriting presents challenges in fully incorporating digital solutions in classrooms. How do you foresee DX and ICT reshaping Japan’s education landscape? What obstacles and opportunities do you anticipate in leveraging these technologies to enrich learning outcomes?

The advent of DX technologies marks an irreversible transformation. COVID-19 accelerated this realization for educational institutions, offering an alternative to face-to-face interactions. However, in institutions like ours that prioritize uplifting the human spirit and nurturing personal capabilities, fostering human friendships and trust through interpersonal engagement holds great value. Striking a balance between convenience and crucial factors for human development remains vital.

When COVID struck, our institution was already involved in distance education, aiming to support students abroad or facing immigration restrictions, accounting for a quarter of our student body. I invited the head of the higher education bureau of MEXT to witness firsthand the impact of COVID-19 on our rural campus. I sought their advocacy in government meetings since we could not voice our situation directly. Later, the bureau head expressed gratitude for exposing them to our reality. It is crucial not to succumb to fear in the face of challenges. While not aggressive, persistent yet polite advocacy yielded positive results. Establishing trust through numerous interactions with MEXT was pivotal.

Now, as we transition to a new phase, seeking advice becomes imperative. Over the years, I have learned the significance of discussing our challenges openly. The natural inclination to avoid conflict does not serve us well when issues demand urgent attention. DX technologies have indeed aided us in various ways to overcome the COVID-19 crisis.

Our faculty is predominantly young, with nearly 60% being non-Japanese nationals, and most of our Japanese faculty obtained their degrees abroad. Our young professors greatly benefit from mentors and digital technology has been immensely valuable here. Exceptional mentors, in Japan and overseas, are very busy people, making physical presence challenging for some. Web conferencing allows us to engage with those unable to come to our campus, serving as a bridge, particularly during the COVID-19 closures.

Post-COVID, we have emphasized face-to-face learning for regular courses to maximize campus utilization in furthering AIU’s leadership education. Building friendships and establishing interpersonal relationships online, I feel, becomes profound and lasting when there is face-to-face communication as well. Our largely residential campus lends itself to the latter.

Despite Japan’s homogeneity, our students come from various regions across the country. Living in close proximity and discussing life in their hometowns has enlightened them about the diversity within Japan, despite appearing homogenous on the surface. This realization serves as a foundation for understanding global diversity. Identifying diversity in seemingly uniform environments prepares them to embrace it when encountered elsewhere. Whilst emphasizing face-to-face interactions, we are upgrading and investing in the university’s DX infrastructure to take advantage of the myriad new possibilities it offers.

 

Your faculty comprises a significant percentage of non-Japanese members, many of whom have earned degrees from international universities. While Japanese students often learn English in high school and middle school, the emphasis tends to be on academic proficiency and exam clearance, placing greater focus on writing over practical conversational skills. With one in four students being international, your university promotes a cross-cultural campus environment, encouraging the free exchange of ideas. However, this can pose challenges for young Japanese students with limited international exposure, potentially feeling intimidated. How do you motivate and support these students in overcoming these hurdles?

Firstly, the younger Japanese generation differs significantly from their parents. While there are parents who have traveled or lived overseas and recognize the importance of this, younger generations often see the world outside their home countries through the Internet. Here at AIU, we feel the actual personal experience will contribute more to their growth and development. Hence, the mandatory one-year study abroad experience is a condition for graduation. Secondly, our campus embodies an open design, seamlessly blending into Akita Prefecture’s Central Park and the surrounding forest - a unique setting. We actively encourage our students to engage with the local community. The presence of a bilingual faculty and administrative staff significantly aids students’ learning experiences, giving them a unique blend of seeing the local from an international perspective, and vice versa. The university’s Study Abroad program further consolidates this.

 

Recent criticism suggests that Japan fails to uniquely provide an experience that justifies foreign students coming here. Merely structuring courses around English might be insufficient to create a distinct learning environment. This could be exacerbated by educational institutions lacking a clear identity and direction. Do you believe this criticism is justified?

AIU’s identity lies in the nurturing of global leaders with an international perspective and an understanding of Japan. I believe that AIU offers foreign students, whether they are exchange students from abroad or full-time overseas students, a unique learning experience. All our undergraduate courses are offered in English and structured along three levels of learning.

The foundation level focuses on language education, cross-cultural understanding, and communication. AIU’s English for Academic Purposes (EAP) program enables a student to learn a range of diverse subjects and to discuss and communicate their content in English in both writing and orally. For overseas students, this lowers the barrier of having to study course content in Japanese. In addition, overseas students are taught Japanese to enable them to interact with the communities around them, as well as to obtain insights into centuries of knowledge that is embodied in Japanese culture. For example, our library has a digital performing arts video archive of around 300 traditional festival performances, which could inspire discussion between overseas and Japanese students.

The next level of pedagogy is based on a strong liberal arts ethos. Students explore the classics of literature, history, and human thought while also studying subjects that would give them a sound basic education (BE), which includes mathematics, natural and social sciences, and the humanities. This prepares them for the third level of studies, where they will specialize in one or more of three programs, Global Studies (GS), Global Connectivity (GC), and Global Business (GB).

Transdisciplinary specialization characterizes the third level of study. The GS program focuses on an understanding of how and why human society is changing, from the perspective of geo-politics, international relations, and sustainability studies. This last was introduced to give students an understanding of the existential threat to human society, brought about by anthropogenic interventions that have begun to destabilize the earth’s environment. The possible solutions to this, commonly known as the green transformation (GX), are a major focus of discussion.

The GC program could be described as studies on where technology meets humanity, developing a holistic appreciation of how they are connected Students get a first-hand understanding of the transformative digital technologies (DX), including AI, that are dramatically changing the way we live, work and interact with each other. The challenge is to see how we can have meaningful lives in a world in constant flux. GC students explore the technological frontiers of computing, programming, and data science, in the context of human thought, philosophy, ethical conduct, and the creation of culture.

AIU’s GB program provides students with a firm grounding in economic theory, finance, and quantitative methods, together with practical transferable skills in business data analysis, marketing, and leadership. New business creation against the background of the green and digital transformations (GX/DX), the possibilities emerging from the transaction transformation (TX) through the use of blockchain technologies and non-fungible tokens (NFTs), and critical evaluation of current market mechanisms from a public and private interest perspective characterize discourse in the GB program.

Overseas exchange students can take the above courses without restriction to any specific field or level. In addition, there are special programs in Japanese Language and Cultural Immersion for these students. For those who wish to learn in Japanese, there is a six-credit advanced language instruction program and, if they wish to enhance their understanding of Japan at a deeper level, there is a similar advanced immersion program, an intensive course in Akita studies taught entirely in Japanese. This was established by AIU in cooperation with The Australian National University. Students in this program study Akita’s unique situation and cultural assets in the classroom, then engage directly with their subject matter through research visits, excursions, and community interactions. Students visit schools and cultural landmarks, and, as a culminating experience, take part in a two-night homestay while helping a local community set up and execute its annual winter festival.

Our founder president, Mineo Nakajima was acutely aware that Japan needed to express itself effectively on the global stage. He viewed language as the conduit to nurture Japan’s future global leaders. Hence, while we may not have a substantial number of full-time foreign students, we have established a mandatory overseas exchange program at AIU. This program requires our students to spend a year abroad, gaining credit and practical English proficiency - a bold step in a conventional Japan-centric cultural context.

Consequently, students are compelled to invest significant effort. We have implemented internal support mechanisms to aid this process. The initial six months of university involve intensive English learning for academic purposes, characterized by rigorous coursework, evaluations, and a 24-hour open library to facilitate their progress.

AIU’s previous president, Norihiro Suzuki, successfully integrated a strong internationally benchmarked liberal arts program with cultural communication competencies, establishing a strong foundation that I have been fortunate to build upon. My inheritance from my predecessor has been the concept of Applied International Liberal Arts (AILA), which will shape the university’s future growth in our 4th Medium Term Plan (2022-2027) and our next Long Term 10-year Strategic Vision (2024-2033).

AILA is a pedagogic initiative that marries the profound thought and humanistic values of a liberal arts education with the decisive actions of leadership. We see this as being the pedagogic core in the development of our young scholars as they face the future. We have begun to establish strong partnerships with excellent industrial partners to strengthen our research capacities, serving communities to add new value in Akita, in Japan, and overseas. AIU’s international partners, represented by over 200 universities worldwide, are expected to play an integral part in furthering AILA to achieve these aims. When our students venture abroad, a common inquiry is about their origins. Thus, our young scholars must cultivate an appreciation of Japan before embarking overseas.

Students select several preferred destinations out of over 200 available institutions all over the world. Admission to the institution of choice is not guaranteed; it is GPA-dependent, encouraging diligent study. Strong performance in the first year determines how they will fare in the second year and the destination of their mandatory Study Abroad program. This system fosters quality control, motivating both students and teachers to strive for excellence. Our pedagogy’s core lies in the quality of the learning environment here in Japan and the options we have created for them to study overseas. Even if students do not secure their first choice, they find value in all destinations, fostering a sense of accomplishment.

Our pedagogic system embraces a peer learning approach, enabling students to learn from one another. We foster a balance between healthy competition and collaboration, encouraging teamwork in scholarship and engagement with the community. This not only cultivates friendships but also allows students to explore beyond the confines of daily routine, which is integral to the university learning experience. We have managed to establish an environment that nurtures both intellectual and creative growth as well as strong interpersonal relationships.

 

Establishing programs and fostering a conducive environment within a university is one aspect, but securing job prospects for students upon graduation is another challenge. Do you find that the job market recognizes these qualifications? Are Japanese companies inclined to hire native speakers from overseas over graduates with these qualifications? To what extent do various industries acknowledge and value these qualifications?

Compared to many other countries, the rate of employment at the point of graduation in Japanese universities is high. Nevertheless, as you have pointed out, the mass recruitment process through a rather narrow time window characterizes the corporate recruitment process in Japan. Overseas students are less aware of the steps and rigors of this somewhat unique system. Institutional support for them is indeed weak across the board, even if their Japanese language capabilities are adequate to work in small and medium-sized enterprises without large overseas divisions that could operate in a foreign language, like English. Several private companies and non-profit associations have emerged in recent years to support universities in obtaining job placements in Japan for their overseas students.

AIU right now has mostly Japanese students with international exposure and very few full-time foreign students. The university’s Career Office has thus far embraced that small number without any noticeable problem. However, if the number of foreign students rises, as it is bound to over the next decade, AIU will have to seriously rethink how it will support such students. The experience of Ritsumeikan’s Asia Pacific University, APU, with a large body of international students, now numbering half the student body, might help AIU and other Japanese universities to navigate this challenge.

At APU, in 2004, I recall that only 13% of the first batch of graduates opted to work in Japan, but their employment rate was 100 %. Traditionally, Japan’s approach was to encourage foreign students to return to their own countries to contribute to their development. However, during discussions with business partners, the Chairman of a leading Japanese multinational corporation suggested the possibility of having some foreign graduates meet Japan’s needs as well. This encounter altered my perception. I used to think that industries solely supported research, but I realized that they were also willing to invest in human development through education. This was the driving force behind APU’s scholarship program for overseas students, totaling JPY 4 billion over 10 years. Since APU is a private university, established by Ritsumeikan Trust, these scholarships were an important enabler to attract global talent to Japan. As a public university, AIU offers affordable tuition, making education accessible for most. However, the necessity for a similar scholarship endowment fund would indeed further enhance AIU’s international outreach, in reaching out to individuals in situations of acute hardship, such as international refugee camps. This would be very much in line with AIU’s international liberal arts ethos.

A focus for us involves attracting students from all over the world with diverse life experiences. This has been realized up to now through international exchange students from AIU’s over 200 partner institutions worldwide. Our goal is to shape global leaders who interact beyond similar backgrounds and comfort zones. Addressing this challenge is pivotal for us.

 

Japan’s distinctive job-hunting system differs significantly from practices elsewhere globally. Unlike Western countries where one or two interviews often secure a job, many Japanese companies hire in large numbers through seminars. Navigating this intricate post-graduate job search poses challenges for foreign students. There is a perception of inadequate university support in guiding these students through this unique system, evident in the job offer rate - 39% for international students versus 80.1% for Japanese students in 2021. Given these disparities, what framework does your university offer to bridge the school-to-employment gap, ensuring fair opportunities for long-term employment for foreign students in Japan?

I have outlined some of how career support can be offered to international students in responding to your previous question using, in particular, the experience at APU. Like AIU in Akita, APU in Oita is also located in a non-metropolitan region, while most of the high-end jobs that graduates find attractive are in companies that are in or around the major metropolitan centers. This makes the job-seeking exercise extremely expensive for international students in universities located outside these metropolitan regions. Thus, both APU and AIU have been pioneers of on-campus recruitment (OCR) where corporations are invited to visit the university campus to recruit from its pool of talent. The two universities support the matching process through their career guidance offices. The mechanism only works because of the high quality of the talent offered in these two universities. Over time, an alumni network gets established within the corporation, thus expanding the university’s outreach into the business world. Such recruits are likely to become change agents in transforming Japan’s local business and institutional culture to embrace diversity and inclusion.

There is one more observation from my experience that I wish to highlight. The first batch of graduates from APU in 2004 showcased a 100% employment rate for foreign students and 88.8% for Japanese students. Over time, this gap has closed. When frequently asked by parents why foreign students receive scholarships from APU and Japanese students do not, I often explain that the initial 12% differential in employment rates provides the answer. Enabling young Japanese individuals to learn alongside international peers offers insights into diverse approaches, aiding their job prospects in Japan’s top companies. APU has actively pursued on-campus recruitment, keeping in mind the needs of both foreign and Japanese students. It is only a matter of time before AIU and other Japanese universities will have to do the same. This is related to quality assurance during the admissions process and the pedagogic journey within the university.

One of APU’s defining characteristics lies in the exceptional quality of its international students. Maintaining a talented international student body served as motivation for local students who might have otherwise been complacent. APU implemented a stringent system ensuring entry of quality students from overseas. This was imperative from an accountability standpoint, particularly to the donors of the international student scholarship endowment fund. This approach enabled Japanese students to recognize the determination of their international counterparts, who often come to Japan with a clear purpose, such as caring for their family or fulfilling specific personal or social responsibilities. This exposure shakes ambivalent Japanese students out of complacency, triggering self-improvement in what might otherwise be a listless cohort.

Both APU and AIU have made on-campus recruitment a key part of their career development strategy, emphasizing the need for dedicated career guidance officers. It is crucial for university graduates to excel in the companies that employ them, emphasizing the importance of nurturing them not just as scholars but also as outstanding individuals. In maintaining quality, another crucial factor is the perception of the over 200 partner universities where AIU students are sent. If they deem these students as second-rate, they might refrain from sending their best students to AIU. This instills checks and balances, compelling AIU to ensure and maintain quality pedagogic and human development standards.

 

Partnerships between universities play a crucial role in fostering cross-cultural experiences and facilitating research projects. Can you provide more details on the nature of the relationships you have with these partnership universities? Additionally, are you actively seeking to establish more MOUs (Memoranda of Understanding) and partnerships to further expand your global network?

Our type of mutually reciprocating international student exchange program needs a lot of input for quality assurance and to maintain trust within the institutional communities we are now part of. I do not see us significantly increasing the number of partner universities for international student exchange. However, we are planning to actively broaden our academic outreach within Japan and overseas through exemplary research efforts. Towards this end, we have identified eight issue areas of concern to Akita which we will be addressing in our 4th Medium Term Plan.

These issues are globally relevant but with acute impacts on the lives and livelihoods of local communities. Many of them are a shared concern for several countries in what is commonly described as the “Global South”.

We would like to see how addressing these challenges in Akita can lead to the creation of new value propositions, becoming a modality for executing AILA. In partnership with industry and government, several initiatives are already underway. We have started engaging with counterparts in Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Egypt to see how solutions to our common concerns can be shared through a new international research exchange program called the CREST initiative we plan to launch in 2024. The interactions here will be regular online exchanges with face-to-face interactions once or twice a year when mutually convenient.

Last year, the BRICS countries’ combined GDP surpassed that of the G7 nations. The global south serves as the hinterland for the BRICS. Now, we plan to shift our research focus to the global south, where many societal issues demanding attention are not dissimilar to the challenges faced in Akita. Addressing these common issues is the focus of the CREST initiative. We anticipate innovations and inventions to emerge from the CREST engagements that we can share with partners worldwide.

Presently, 80% of our undergrad students studying abroad go to the USA and Europe, with the remaining 20% choosing Asia. This system aligns with student interests and has been successful. However, we aim to encourage them to develop their capabilities by designing new value propositions in disadvantaged places as well. We are making arrangements to pilot CREST in Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Egypt in 2024. The eight issues we have chosen to address in Akita between 2022 and 2026 are: (1) Renewable Energy; (2) Healthy Ageing; (3) Climate-resilient Agriculture; (4) Forest Resources Value-addition; (5) Smart and Green Mobility; (6) Culture and Heritage Archives; (7) Inclusion, Diversity and Conviviality in Local Communities; (8) Data Science and the Digital Transformation. They will be the broad areas around which we will discuss ideas for the research projects to be launched under the CREST initiative. As CREST evolves, we anticipate it will show us new directions for post-graduate studies at AIU as well.

We are forging partnerships with industries and, starting in mid-February this year, we will conduct a training program to train the next generation of data scientists, capable of creating and operating physical computing devices. We are hoping to work with two companies on a design workshop later this year to redefine mobility by linking drive-train electrification to a range of new digitally-driven services. We expect the outcome of these exercises to also feed into the CREST initiative mentioned earlier.

 

With one in four of your students being international, what strategies are you considering to further increase the proportion of international students at your university in the future?

Expanding our full-time international student base is a likely outcome, given the shrinking cohorts of youth in aging Japan. How this will take shape, whether as an undergraduate initiative, or in postgraduate studies, or both, needs further discussion. Our 3rd 10-Year Strategic Vision (2024-2033) will certainly have to consider this.

 

Akita International University, founded in 2004, pioneered a unique form of global education previously unseen in Japan. Yet, you have mentioned facing challenges due to its status as a new university without an established legacy. Could you delve into some of the difficulties posed by this relatively young history? Additionally, what does the future hold for Akita International University?

The first decade of our university shattered the misconception that Japanese individuals cannot become fluent in foreign languages and engage globally. The subsequent decade focused on bolstering the understanding of what it means to be human, rooted in a liberal arts foundation. Now, my role is to leverage these foundations and empower our young scholars to generate societal value.

While our scholars already contribute profoundly to society as deep thinkers, my goal is to blend profound thought with creative energy and decisive action, in keeping with the pedagogic concept, AILA, mentioned earlier. The next phase of learning involves connecting local issues with a global perspective, fostering collaboration with industry, government, and communities in Japan and abroad, and setting the stage for new initiatives in undergraduate and postgraduate education at AIU. The CREST initiative epitomizes this and will empower our young scholars to enter the world stage with greater confidence and capability.

 

Leading a Japanese institution as a foreigner is indeed unique, especially considering Japan's status as one of the most ethnically homogenous societies globally. However, we are witnessing an increase in foreign business leaders within the country. How do you perceive the role of foreign leadership in benefiting Japan? Do you believe this trend can be leveraged to enhance Japan's resilience, particularly amid its declining population? To what degree do you think Japan is prepared to embrace foreign leadership within its institutions or in the business realm?

There have been, in the past, leaders with insight in Japan who have recognized this need to appoint foreign heads in Japanese institutions. My appointment as President of APU in 2004 was one such case. Here at AIU, we are striving to push the envelope further for nurturing future Japanese leaders. As our graduates enter the core of Japanese businesses, we expect their international mindset and qualities of leadership to make them change agents in their respective institutions, creating a ripple effect, and influencing other institutions in the process as well.

 

Looking ahead in the future to your final day as the president of this university, what legacy do you aspire to leave behind? How would you like your faculty members to remember you when you hand over the reins to the next president?

On my first day as president, I outlined what I believed needed to be done. That was to build creatively on the legacy my predecessors left me, embracing both continuity and change, but keeping in mind AIU's core values ​​and mission. However, from the second day onward, I have been focused on devising a succession plan. If I can leave an institution where faculty and staff members are empowered to work towards continuous improvement in a caring, collegial fashion, I feel my successor can use this as a springboard to take this young institution to the heights it deserves to reach.


For more details, explore their website at  https://web.aiu.ac.jp/en/ 
 

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