In the current era of globalization, governments and higher education institutions (HEIs) worldwide are striving to improve global competitiveness both at the national and institutional levels. The challenge for higher education is twofold. First, university graduates must be equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to compete in increasingly globalized knowledge economies. Second, the growing relevance of international rankings means universities themselves must respond strategically to increased global competition regarding research, innovation, and international reputation (Marginson and van der Wende 2007). A common response to these challenges has been investment by governments and HEIs in higher education (HE) internationalization, including the development of universities into global hubs for research and learning (Huang 2007). Policymakers argue this will lead to the path-breaking innovation and creation of ‘global human resources’ necessary to drive economic growth and foster national competitiveness.

In addition to utilizing higher education as a tool for the development of human capital and economic growth, nation-states use education as a political tool to inculcate national identities (Vickers 2011). In many countries, national identity formation is promoted during the compulsory years of schooling through state-mandated history, moral, and civic education curricula. The rationales driving these agendas vary, but most have been aimed at the legitimization and institutionalization of particular arrangements of state governance in the face of both internal and external pressures.

From an economic perspective, the dual policy agendas for national identity formation and HE internationalization appear to go hand in hand. Historically, the creation of a patriotic citizenry has been conducive to fostering human resources capable of serving national interests and fuelling economic development (Green 2013). Likewise, internationalization of education may enable the provision of relevant knowledge and skills necessary for national competitiveness in today’s rapidly globalizing economies. However, these agendas contain within them inherent tensions, especially when played out in university settings. HE internationalization stems originally from an ethos based on international peace, academic collaboration, and mutual understanding (Kreber 2009). Similarly, the university itself has cosmopolitan DNA, with the first 2000 of its 2500-year history constituting a ‘wandering scholar model’ characterized by autonomy and freedom from state control (Kerr 1990, p. 7). Arguably, contemporary forms of both internationalization and the university have shifted away from these cosmopolitan ideals towards a nationally-bounded economic orientation. Shaped by state-driven neoliberal reforms and strategies for global competitiveness, HE has been redefined in recent decades through processes of commodification, marketization, and corporatization (Mok 2003, 2007; Olssen and Peters 2005). Nevertheless, universities continue evolving in today’s era of globalization and are engaged in an ongoing negotiation of their roles as both national and global actors. While attempting to further national interests in response to state funding and policy directives on the one hand, they also play a key role as global institutions through the facilitation of cross-border flows of knowledge, people, culture, and innovation (Marginson and van der Wende 2007). This dual role of higher education thus presents a paradox for policy agendas aimed at national identity formation and economically driven internationalization: education policies with these aims may clash with the extant cosmopolitan aspects of internationalization and with what Marginson (2011a) describes as higher education’s role in contributing to the ‘global public good’.

This paper will explore the ways in which policies for national identity formation and internationalization interact to complement and contradict each other in the context of global higher education. These themes will be explored by comparing recent policies in two countries in East Asia, a part of the world currently on the rise in the global hierarchy of higher education (Altbach 2004; Marginson 2011b). China and Japan were selected as case studies, and the following research questions were addressed:

  1. 1.

    In what ways have the two countries pursued nationalist agendas through education?

  2. 2.

    In what ways have the two countries approached HE internationalization?

  3. 3.

    What factors might explain these approaches?

  4. 4.

    What dilemmas arise from the interaction of these policy agendas in the context of global higher education?

In addition to having a complex and often conflictual relationship with one another in the modern era, Japan and China share a number of important similarities and differences with regard to higher education. As of 2011, China had 1887 public HEIs and 836 private HEIs (UNESCO 2014). In 2013, Japan had 86 national and 90 local public universities and 606 private institutions (MEXT n.d.). While Japan has a higher percentage of private universities than China, scholars argue the HE systems in both countries are among the most privatized because of their heavy reliance on financial contributions of students and their families, and their increasing tendency to follow ‘market and competition-oriented institutional governance as private institutions or corporatized institutions under the idea of new public management (NPM)’ (Yonezawa et al. 2014, p. 11). While HE worldwide is increasingly being shaped by neoliberal influences such as NPM, one commonality still found in both China and Japan is a strong nation-state steering and control of education (Marginson 2011b). According to Marginson (ibid, p. 595), ‘[d]espite the use of indirect NPM steering, states often continue to exercise detailed controls over program contents, personnel management, and research’. Heavy state involvement in education has a long history in the East Asian region, and today nations continue to view HE as a means of producing the human resources and research needed for national development and global competitiveness.

Table 1 below highlights a number of other notable comparisons between HEIs in the two countries, including statistics about HE enrolment, main disciplinary foci, research, and international mobility.

Table 1 Comparisons of tertiary education in China and Japan

In addition to the comparisons of HE highlighted above, Japan and China share a number of broader similarities that are relevant to this study. One shared characteristic found in both countries is the influence of Confucianism on public attitudes towards education and the role of the state (ibid.). This tradition provides the cultural conditions that support the roles of the state, encourages social competition and investment in education by families, and fosters the widespread support for public investment in scientific research (ibid).

A third feature is both of these nation-sates have historically pushed strong nationalist agendas through their education systems (Vickers 2009). Finally, as of 2009, domestic students accounted for the overwhelming majority of tertiary education enrolments in both cases, at nearly 97 % in Japan (OECD 2011) and 99 % in China (UNESCO 2013). Thus, the vast majority of university students in each case would have been exposed to state-sanctioned curricula for national identity formation during their compulsory years of schooling.

Literature review

The following section will contextualize the above research questions within relevant scholarly debates and introduce theoretical frameworks to inform comparative analysis of the two cases. The topics to be covered are theories of HE internationalization, the role of universities in contributing to the ‘global public good’, and debates surrounding conceptions of nationalism with particular reference to the East Asian ‘developmental states’.

HE internationalization in the era of global competitiveness

Internationalization has been defined by Knight (2003, p. 2) as ‘the process of integrating an international, intercultural or global dimension into the purpose, function or delivery of … education’. This broad definition can be applied to a wide range of activities informed by differing motivations and objectives. Goodman (2007, p. 71) argues that multiple and contested interpretations of the term have resulted in its becoming a ‘multivocal symbol’ that benefits ‘universities in that it allows a wide variety of programmes and interest groups to flourish alongside each other despite the fact that their ideas might appear contradictory’ (ibid, p. 86). These interpretations often manifest in forms of internationalization that tend towards either global competition or collaboration and cooperation. Table 2 below provides a conceptual framework outlining four possible manifestations of HE internationalization.

Table 2 Rationales for higher education internationalization

Worldwide, approaches to HE internationalization have shifted focus in recent decades from a ‘cooperative effort with its rationale based primarily on political, cultural, and academic arguments’ towards an economically motivated rationale (Kreber 2009, p. 4). As indicated in Table 2, the factors that have contributed to this shift relate to pressures imposed on nations and HEIs to remain internationally competitive in response to economic globalization. The globalized higher education marketplace requires HEIs to strategically position themselves in a highly competitive landscape that transcends national borders. HEIs that have historically been highly regarded in national contexts are now being held to global standards, compared against the world’s top-tier research institutions.

The types of internationalization activities a nation or institution is able to pursue are determined largely by its position in the global higher education landscape. According to Huang (2007, p. 52), internationalization activities can be distinguished into three types: an import-oriented type, an import and export type, and an export-oriented type. Table 3 below outlines a framework for determining which type of HE internationalization best applies to a given nation/institution.

Table 3 Three types of internationalization of higher education

Countries that fall into the export-oriented category in Table 3 below are typically those in the Anglosphere. At present, Anglosphere nations and their world-renowned research universities hold the top positions in the global higher education hierarchy (QS 2015; ARWU 2014). As the English language has become the lingua franca for scientific research, international academic publications, and the world of global business, there is a strong worldwide draw to HEIs that can offer high-quality programs in English (Altbach 2004). Thus, another factor that influences a nation’s global position is whether or not English is used as a national or major language and incorporated into instruction at universities (Huang 2007, p. 52).

Today, many emergent East Asian HEIs fall into the import- and export-oriented category. In order to maintain, leverage, and improve upon their positions in the global HE landscape, many have implemented strategies to internationalize their campuses in a variety of ways.

One approach has been to offer courses in English. This has enabled increased inward mobility of students who would otherwise be unable to participate due to linguistic constraints. However, in some cases, the importation of English as a medium of instruction has brought with it a range of issues, including difficulties for domestic students and resistance from staff in adapting to this new medium of instruction (Tsuneyoshi 2005). As indicated in Table 3 below, this is one example of how conflicts can arise between international imports and national characteristics.

A further challenge is presented in the growing prevalence of another export, transnational education. In addition to the power of export-oriented Western universities offering world-class programs in English to draw promising students and academics overseas, many HEIs from the Anglosphere have begun opening branch campuses in Asian countries to compete with local institutions (Yonezawa et al. 2014).

To respond to these encroaching external pressures, governments in East Asian countries have endorsed university internationalization initiatives. In Japan, the government has invested ¥ 7.7 billion to fund its ‘Top Global University Project’, which aims to boost the number of universities entering the top 100 global rankings and to provide ‘prioritized support for the world-class and innovative universities’ that lead the internationalization of Japanese society (MEXT 2014). This is to be achieved through structural changes to improve global competitiveness, improvements to the ratio of foreign faculty and students, and through an increase in the provision of lectures in English (ibid.).

China has sought to enhance the global competitiveness of its HEIs through investment in its top universities as well, with an emphasis on rapidly improving its capacity for producing high-quality research. This investment is producing significant results. In 1995, China was the 12th largest producer of science papers in the world and is now the second largest having surpassed Japan in 2007 (Marginson 2014). Like Japan’s Top Global University Project, China has also sponsored an initiative (the 211 Project) that aims to ‘equip China with one hundred ‘world-class universities’ to enhance high-level technological and managerial skills and stem—or even reverse—the flow of students travelling to prestigious institutions in the West in search of such skills’ (Vickers 2007, p. 81).

HE as a global public good

While the motivations that drive HE internationalization policies have shifted to a more economic orientation, the outcomes of internationalization activities continue to have broader impacts that evoke higher education’s cosmopolitan roots. For example, the university’s production of knowledge and its diffusion across borders through internationalization activities has been described by Marginson (2011a) as a ‘global public good’. Kaul et al. (1999, p. 16) define global public goods as:

outcomes … that tend towards universality in the sense that they benefit all countries, population groups and generations. At a minimum, a global public good would meet the following criteria: its benefits extend to more than one group of countries and do not discriminate against any population group or any set of generations, present or future.

The ‘universality’ of cross-border knowledge transfer facilitated through practices of internationalization poses a challenge to policy agendas aimed at attaining the self-interested objectives of nation-states. In addition to national competitiveness, these aims often manifest in policies designed to inculcate nationalist identities, which, through processes of fostering notions of a national ‘self’ that is distinct from a foreign ‘other’, run counter to the ideals of universality and cosmopolitanism. Theories outlining the forms, causal factors and purposes of these processes with reference to East Asia are discussed in the following two sections.

Nationalism in the East Asian ‘developmental states’

Nationalism, a topic of substantial scholarly debate, can manifest in a variety of forms. According to Ignatieff (1993, p. 4), one such form is civic nationalism, which is organized around the notion of an inclusive community of ‘equal rights-bearing citizens, united in patriotic attachment to a shared set of political practices and values’. Ethnic nationalism, in contrast, is premised on the notion that a community is bound together through an inherited ethnicity and culture (ibid.). In practice, states use nationalism as a tool to obtain and exercise power (Breuilly 1993). Nationalist policies can be defensive attempts to ensure the survival and development of fragile nation-states, while others can morph into violent and militaristic ultra-nationalisms like those found during the era of imperialism. With regard to the East Asian developmental states, the various nationalisms that emerged have been described as ‘situational’ (Johnson 1982, cited in Green 2013, p. 343). From this perspective, nationalisms arise from particular historical conditions, both internal to the nation and often in reaction to external pressures. The nationalisms that have evolved in China and Japan are thus unique to their own specific contexts, but they have both served to legitimize the state and foster the national unity deemed crucial for economic development.

The following section will juxtapose and explore in more detail recent trends in nationalist policies in China and Japan, highlighting potential causal factors that might explain their existence. This will be followed by a comparison of HE internationalization policies in the two cases, with reference to the way these policies interact with nationalist agendas.

National identity formation in China and Japan

Both China and Japan have utilized education to deliver nationalist messages to their people (for examples of Japan, see Aspinall 2002; Lincicome 2009; McCullough 2008; for China, see Vickers 2011; Wang 2008; Zhao 1998). The discourses embedded in these messages have evolved over time, but have continued to be inextricably linked to these nation-states’ relationships with the world beyond their borders. A brief historical account will put current policies in context.

In the 1850s, the imposition of powerful Western forces manifested in the arrival of Matthew Perry’s ‘black ships’ triggered Japan’s reactionary process of rapid modernization and national identity development (Green 2013). Early forms of nationalism were thus an attempt to rally the nation to a unified position of self-defence against an immediate and daunting foreign threat (Anderson 2006). One vehicle by which nationalist agendas were delivered was the education system, in the form of curricula known as ‘moral education’ (Rosegaard 2011). As Japan developed in a competitive imperialistic era, over time the nationalism that was originally defensive became increasingly aggressive and militaristic. Moral education, too, evolved from a program aimed at teaching ethics and loyalty to the Emperor to one that subjugated and indoctrinated the Japanese people with an ideology of ‘ethnocentric imperialism’ (Hoffman 1991, cited in Rosegaard 2011, p. 88). Under the US Occupation after WWII, moral education was removed from the curriculum but reappeared with the departure of the Americans in 1958 and has remained to this day (ibid.). According to Doak (1996, 1997), the twentieth century was a period in which various contested ideologies of nationalism informed political debate in Japan. One dominant form that has persisted and can still be found in policy rhetoric today is ethnic nationalism (ibid.).

Like Japan, China developed its form of nationalism in response to the arrival of Western powers (and then Japan), all of whom possessed superior military strength and posed an unprecedented threat to Chinese culture (Zhimin 2005). China’s leadership recognized, like Japan’s did during the Meiji period, that the external threat of foreign powers warranted a nationalist identity to unite its people.

China has experienced its own unique historical trajectory, the last 65 years of which has been dominated by the Communist Party of China (CCP). The contemporary Chinese nation-state has been rapidly evolving since the late 1970s from an ideologically socialist past into a new form in which the authoritarianism of the nominally socialist CCP co-exists with full-fledged market capitalism. This shift has entailed a new approach to legitimizing the authoritarian rule of the party; instead of a program of indoctrination based on Marxist–Leninist and Maoist ideologies, the CCP has sought to reframe its legitimacy through the inculcation of nationalistic identities (Zhao 1998). The 1980s saw widespread disillusionment with Communism, social unrest and the subsequent pro-democracy movement culminating in the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989, all of which indicated to party leaders that a new form of patriotic indoctrination was urgently needed (ibid.). According to Zhao (1998),

Chinese Communist leaders began to place emphasis on the party’s role as the paramount patriotic force and guardian of national pride in order to … hold the country together during the period of rapid and turbulent transformation. By identifying the party with the nation, the regime would make criticism of the party line an unpatriotic act (Zhao 1998, p. 289).

The goal to fuse the concepts of party and nation in China’s collective consciousness manifested in a new program of ‘patriotic education’ (ibid.). The approach was markedly different from Japan’s. In contrast to Japan’s predominantly ethno-cultural nationalism, the CCP recognized that the multi-ethnic makeup of China’s population presented risks to the cultivation of an ethnic nationalism focused on the Han majority. It sought instead to develop a ‘state-led’ form of nationalism that instilled a ‘love of country’ (aiguo), and insisted that all peoples within China’s borders are members of a unified nation bound together by the CCP (ibid, p. 291). Potential criticisms of the party for growing social inequalities were shifted onto foreign powers such as Japan and the USA, who were blamed through xenophobic messages for ‘keeping China down’ (Vickers 2011).

The early 1980s saw a number of changes take place in Japan as well, notably Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone’s promotion of the concept of ‘healthy nationalism’ (Aspinall 2002; Hood 1999). The following quotes elucidate Nakasone’s definition of the concept:

[I]t is when a race or group of people who share a common destiny…make every effort to enable the country to grow and prosper politically, economically, and culturally. It is when they have their own identity, or sense of self, in the world politically, economically, culturally, and otherwise and co-operate to contribute to that identity. Without this, there is no way that a nation will be able to stand on “its own two feet.” (Nakasone 1987, cited in Hood 1999)

…a nationalism that endeavors to foster self-identity in this sense is completely justifiable nationalism. And we must teach this through education (Nakasone 1987, cited in Lincicome 2009, p. xix)

Nakasone’s references to ‘race’, ‘destiny’, and a singular cultural identity point to the persistence of ethnic forms of nationalism in Japan. He explicitly states the importance of conferring these values through education. Today, the Japanese state’s nationalist rhetoric has shifted somewhat. Current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promotes a more civic version of Nakasone’s ‘healthy nationalism’ which ‘encourages the Japanese people to be proud of their country while at the same time respectful of contemporary Japan’s democratic political system and supportive of a peaceful East Asian regional order’ (Berger 2014, p. 2). This more outward-facing nationalism has prompted the addition of a global component to recent versions of the moral education curricula. The Ministry of Education (MEXT) Outline of the Revised Basic Act on Education advocates for:

Fostering an attitude of respecting our traditions and culture, loving the country and region that nurtured them, respecting other countries, and contributing to world peace and the development of the international community (MEXT 2006, p. 2)

While there is still a clear message of patriotism, love of country also expands to include the ‘region’, and respect for other countries and a mission of contributing to world peace are included. The addition of this global component may serve to foster the development of more cosmopolitan identities alongside notions of patriotic loyalty to Japan.

In China, cosmopolitan outlooks are still absent from moral education policy documents. A recent example is a 2006 policy implemented by the CCP that was aimed at intensifying moral education and constructing ‘a harmonious socialist society’ (Camicia and Zhu 2011). A central component to this policy was the ‘Eight Honors and Eight Shames’ (ibid, p. 607).

These are translated into English as follows:

The Eight Honors and Eight Shames

  • Love the country; do it no harm

  • Serve the people; never betray them

  • Follow science; discard superstition

  • Be diligent; not indolent

  • Be united, help each other; make no gains at other’s expense

  • Be honest and trustworthy; do not sacrifice ethics for profit

  • Be disciplined and law-abiding; not chaotic and lawless

  • Live plainly, work hard; do not wallow in luxuries and pleasures (ibid, p. 608).

Inspection of the list reveals an obvious nationalistic discourse. At the top of the list, the first couplet calls for an uncritical patriotism and doing the nation no harm (ibid, p. 609). Never betraying fellow countrymen, discipline and lawfulness all make the list, but unlike Japan’s latest, more globalized moral curriculum, there is no reference to the world outside of national borders.

Nationalism in HE

Signs of state-sanctioned nationalist agendas can be found on university campuses as well. In Japan, universities have recently experienced pressure from the government to raise the national flag and sing the national anthem at ceremonies and other events (Japan Times 2015). In China, the CCP’s ‘patriotic education’ program has extended from kindergarten all the way to the university level. An example is the ‘I am Chinese’ program implemented at universities, which taught students of ‘the ‘great achievements’ of the Chinese people and especially the Communist Party’ (Zhao 1998, p. 293).

The persistence of nationalist agendas, especially at the HE level, risks obfuscating the realization of objectives of states and HEIs wishing to internationalize universities. These challenges will be discussed in the following section outlining approaches to HE internationalization in the two countries.

Approaches to HE internationalization in Japan and China

Japan has worked towards the vision of internationalization (kokusaika) in one form or another since the 1970s (Takagi 2009). While many policies have been implemented over the past 45 years, some scholars argue the term has devolved into a buzzword with multiple meanings, serving actors with wide-ranging motivations (Goodman 2007). In 1983, Nakasone, the same prime minister that promoted the concept of ‘healthy nationalism’, implemented a policy with the intention of recruiting 100,000 international students to Japanese universities. At the time, the policy’s objectives were to improve the relationship with neighbouring Asian countries through exchange, demonstrate the nation’s presence on the world stage, and ‘rehabilitate Japan’s image of being a beneficiary, rather than a benefactor, of the world’s intellectual currents’ (Ishikawa 2011, p. 209).

Today, the target number has increased to 300,000 but the motivations have shifted, reflecting the worldwide trend of HE marketization and the adoption of an economic orientation towards internationalization (Kreber 2009). Instead of the political, cultural and academic motives that fuelled early efforts at internationalization, today’s goals focus on recruiting high-quality foreign students and scholars to contribute to the research agendas and overall competitiveness of Japanese universities (Takeda 2006; Ninomiya et al. 2009; cited in Ishikawa 2011, p. 209). In addition to the 300,000 Plan, a number of policies have been pushed by government calling for the creation of world-class ‘international centres for learning’ to foster global competitiveness (Tsuneyoshi 2005; Ishikawa 2011).

The same time period has seen dramatic changes to higher education in China. In 1976, nearly all HEIs in China had been closed or abolished as a result of the Cultural Revolution (Huang 2003). The subsequent 30 years saw the number of HEIs dramatically increase to over 3000 institutions enrolling over 24.5 million students, making China the largest HE provider in the world (Wang 2009). China’s open-door policy and economic reforms aimed at achieving ‘the four modernizations’: the modernization of industry, agriculture, defence, and science/technology (Huang 2003). To this end, the government recognized the need to train experts and high-level professionals who could facilitate the modernization of the nation, and so provided financial support to students and scholars to study abroad at foreign universities. In addition to outward mobility, this period saw the introduction and translation of foreign textbooks, and an increased provision of English-language education. The activities of this phase in China’s development are an example of the import-oriented position described in Huang’s framework for HE internationalization; at the start, Chinese HEIs did not have the capacity to foster economic growth and so had to import knowledge and models of teaching and learning from abroad.

Today, HE internationalization in both countries is now very much about economic competition and strategic position-taking on the global stage. The most recent iteration of Japan’s kokusaika policy is Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ‘Top Global Universities’ initiative. With this policy Abe hopes to usher more Japanese universities into the top 100 world rankings. However, skeptics point to the long list of similar policies that have failed in the past.

Japan’s HE internationalization policies have often garnered labels such as ‘contradictory’ and ‘paradoxical’ (Ishikawa 2011; Fitzpatrick 2014). The reason, it is argued, is because Japan’s attempts at internationalization are infused with ‘a desire to protect and promote Japanese national identity’ (Burgess 2010). Japan’s kokusaika has been described as form of ‘modernist nationalism’, with the ultimate aim being to ‘reinforce the idea of Japanese as being different from all other people and for that difference to be properly understood outside Japan’ (Goodman 2007, p. 72). Furthermore, this monocultural nationalist approach to internationalization has been criticized for overlooking the already international nature of Japanese society (Horie 2002). According to Tsuneyoshi (2011, p. 120), internationalization policies in Japan typically exclude recognition of the existing multiculturalism in the country, and instead focuses on ‘English, informational technology, and global competition’. For example, up until 2003, it was easier for foreign students from abroad to enter Japanese universities than it was for ‘foreign’ students attending unrecognized non-Japanese schools inside Japan (Goodman 2007). In addition to overlooking the Korean, Chinese, South American, and other minority populations within Japan, images of kokusaika tend to ignore Japan’s immediate neighbours with which Japan’s ‘past, present, and future are most intimately intertwined’ in favour of an approach that is decidedly Western-facing:

Statements associated with the Super Global program refer repeatedly to the prioritization of links with ‘outstanding European and American universities’. Meanwhile, political media and educational debate on foreign languages focuses exclusively on English (Rappleye and Vickers 2015).

The orientation towards the Anglosphere may be reflective of the positions universities in English-speaking countries hold in the global higher education landscape. In order to be competitive, Japanese institutions must seek to position themselves strategically in relation to the top-tier HEIs in the West.

The paramount form of internationalization that has evolved in Japan is thus one focused not on cosmopolitanism and regional cooperation, but on economic competitiveness and the strengthening of an ethnically Japanese national identity. China, too, has evolved along a similar trajectory.

From 1992, China initiated further economic reforms and moved more completely towards a market economy. This initiated China’s second phase of HE internationalization, which saw an intensification of the import-model (Huang 2003). China’s top-ten HEIs procured almost all of the textbooks being used at Harvard, Stanford and MIT (ibid.). From 2001, the Ministry of Education mandated that from 5 to 10 % of all curricula in leading universities be taught in English. Here we see the government’s priorities of increasing the provision of English for global competitiveness, but only for an elite group of Chinese studying at the top.

By the early 2000s, China’s global strategy for internationalization expanded to include the exportation of Chinese knowledge to the world (Yang 2010). A prominent example of this is the installation of centres for learning Chinese language and culture, known as Confucius Institutes, in partner institutions worldwide (Vickers 2007). Another noteworthy shift occurred in 2008: those coming to China to study (223,499) outnumbered for the first time those leaving China to study abroad (179,800) (Su 2009 cited in Yang 2010). China has now repositioned itself in the global higher education landscape and has assumed the position of the importer-exporter. These shifts in the landscape will undoubtedly impact China’s neighbours, making the goals of policies like Abe’s Top Global Universities more difficult to achieve.

Although marketization and competition are increasingly defining HE in China, government regulation and control have never diminished (Huang 2003). An aspect of this control continues to be the emphasis placed on ensuring patriotic loyalty to the state. Examples include the ‘I am Chinese’ curriculum and constraints put on academic freedom, evidenced by the recent firing of an outspoken academic who has been critical of the government (Redden 2013).

While varied in approach and content, it is clear that agendas for nationalism and economic HE internationalization are prominent in both countries. The discussion that follows will consider the implications of these agendas in relation to cosmopolitan aspects of internationalization and HE as a global public good.


Aspects of HE internationalization and the role of universities in contributing to the global public good present a number of dilemmas for nation-states, including those in East Asian countries. It is clear from the trends in China and Japan that it is competition, not cooperation, which is motivating nation-states and HEIs to use internationalization to position themselves strategically in the globalized economy. To this end, inculcating loyal, patriotic identities in citizens through state-controlled education may be beneficial. The globalized free market is perhaps just the latest foreign intruder that must be confronted by a resilient and unified nation. Graduates with a strong sense of national pride may be more willing to take jobs at home, and work hard towards the collective goal of social and economic prosperity for their country.

However, HE internationalization may have other, perhaps contradictory, effects that could pose a threat to these agendas. International activities including student and staff mobility, research collaborations, engagement with international development organizations, and internationalized curricula may result in the development of more cosmopolitan identities that could undermine unquestioning loyalty to the nation-state.

Connected to this, a further challenge to nationalist agendas lies in the evolution of the skill set required for national competitiveness. Since human resources with critical thinking skills are deemed necessary to thrive in the global knowledge economy (Casner-Lotto and Barrington 2006), countries like China and Japan will be required to develop citizens who may increasingly question, critique, and challenge nationalist policies. According to Apple (1995, p. 13), ‘schools are not ‘merely’ institutions of reproduction, institutions where the overt and covert knowledge that is taught inexorably moulds students into passive beings who are able and eager to fit into an unequal society’. Learners, especially those equipped with the capacity for critical thought, are able to contest, reinterpret, and even reject nationalist messages they deem illegitimate. The paradox for authoritative nation-states thus becomes clear: a critical, cosmopolitan citizenry may possess the skills necessary for global competitiveness, but may be less willing to uncritically accept the legitimacy of the state. As such, reframing nationalist policies to incorporate more open, democratic debate, and learning to embrace a more questioning, active and critical citizenry may be both beneficial and necessary.

One potential solution that could enable countries like China and Japan to develop graduates with the competencies for both global competitiveness and regional cooperation is through educational policy and programming for global citizenship (GC). Curricula aimed at developing ‘global citizens’ can increasingly be found integrated into education systems worldwide, and many universities are adopting messages of global citizenship into their mission statements and strategy-level institutional commitments (Jorgenson and Shultz 2012). The types of GC programs available to students vary dramatically, but many offer opportunities to work in cross-disciplinary teams to address global problems; develop leadership skills, critical thinking abilities, and cross-cultural awareness; and provide students chances to grapple with a range of social, political and environmental issues currently facing world leaders and governments today. Many GC programs challenge preconceived notions of citizenship and encourage learners to reflect on their rights and responsibilities in an increasingly interconnected world. Providing learners in China and Japan opportunities to engage with these debates may be conducive to developing attitudes informed less by nationalistic identities and more by an understanding of the importance of mutual respect and cooperation in the face of global problems.

In addition to developing skills and attitudes for global citizenship, many GC programs also infuse elements of employability into their curricula. Thus, it is possible that while students are learning to think critically and work together in multi-cultural teams to address global problems, they will also be developing the skills needed to be successful in the global knowledge economy. Developing graduates with these skills could thus be a novel approach to fostering global competitiveness for China and Japan.

The CCP may be averse to instituting global citizenship curricula into higher education programming. The Eight Honors and Eight Shames leave little room for critical thought or active civic engagement. However, perhaps aspects of GC could be adapted in such a way as to place more emphasis on developing in students the ‘global competencies’ needed for success in today’s global knowledge economy.

Another means to foster ‘critical individuals who are capable of analysing power structures, building global community, or tangibly helping to improve the lives of people around the world’ is through study abroad (Lewin 2009, p. xv). In addition to implementing innovative approaches to teaching and learning at home, HEIs in China and Japan could look at further expanding study abroad within the East Asian region and improving approaches to international cooperation at the strategic level. There are some positive signs of this occurring in recent years. A notable development is the CAMPUS Asia program, which aims to foster exchanges and promote mutual understanding between students from China, Korea and Japan. Beginning in 2012, the program has established ten consortiums of top-ranked universities from the three countries, with the ideal being to eventually develop the project into a means for regional cultural exchange like that of Europe’s ERASMUS Program (Byun and Um 2014). While still in its pilot phase, the success and expansion of this program could facilitate increasing East Asian HE regionalization and improvements in regional cooperation.

At present, the USA is currently China’s top study abroad destination (UNESCO 2014) indicating a continuing draw to higher education in the Anglosphere, and, like Japan, a predominantly Western-facing orientation to study abroad. However, the second most popular destination with Chinese students for study abroad is now Japan. Likewise, China itself has become a popular destination for study abroad, with most students coming from Korea and Japan (Vickers 2007). Along with increased economic interdependence within East Asia in the past decade has come increases in student mobility and de facto forms of regional internationalization (Byun and Um 2014). Continued efforts to expand authentic cultural exchange facilitated through study abroad could provide Japanese and Chinese students with new perspectives through which to compare and reflect upon state-sanctioned patriotic education. While not all students will be able to study abroad, those that do can return to their countries and influence their peers through the stories of their experiences.

China and Japan both have a long way yet to go. Increasingly, globally-oriented elements can be found included in moral education curricula in Japan but are still absent in China. However, the Japanese version still establishes a clear binary between the national ‘self’ and that of the ‘other’ out in the world. As a nation, Japan has experienced stagnation in recent years while watching its East Asian neighbours continue to surge ahead. Accompanying this decline has been a rise in more vocal, organized displays of nationalism. Japan’s nationalists call for ‘an urgent injection of patriotism, character, and moral education into young people’ to help save the nation (Cave 2009, p. 51). Economic decline may thus lead to an intensification of Japan’s ethnocentric nationalism and hamper the development of capable global human resources. Another step backwards can be found in the recent call by the government to ‘serve areas that better meet society’s needs’ by closing or scaling back social science and humanities departments at Japan’s 86 national universities (Grove 2015). Globally ranked Kyoto University and the University of Tokyo have refused to comply, but 17 national universities plan to stop recruitment of students to social science and humanities (HSS) courses (Social Science Space 2015). Many in Japan and the international community have voiced their objections to this mandate, including the Science Council of Japan, who stated that HSS is essential to create the global human resources that can think critically, understand societies, and contribute to the global community (ibid.).

While China has experienced rapid economic growth, access to quality education and the benefits it provides are available only to the affluent. Growing social inequalities combined with a xenophobic nationalism inculcated through the CCP’s patriotic education curricula threaten both internal and regional stability, and places increasing pressure on the regime to live up to its nationalist rhetoric (Vickers 2007).

Nevertheless, as students enter universities that are increasingly engaged in fostering the global public good through transmission of culture and knowledge across borders, graduates with cosmopolitan perspectives on national and global issues may also increase. In response, education in East Asia may begin to evolve away from its nationalistic and competitive orientation.


In the past, the inculcation of national identities may have helped in rallying citizens to work towards ensuring national survival in the face of threatening foreign nations, and ultimately towards progress and economic development (Green 2013). Today, survival and progress still depend on the nation-state’s ability to respond to external threats, often manifested in the current era as the rapidly changing economic and cultural forces of globalization. While increasing global competitiveness through HE internationalization may prove beneficial to individual nation-states in the short-term, countries in the East Asian region should consider the potential pitfalls of becoming too singly focused on competitiveness at the expense of mutual understanding and peaceful international relations in the region. The continued push to create uncritical nationalistic citizens threatens to undermine the goals of internationalization and may be detrimental to any efforts at HE regional cooperation and integration.

In today’s era of global competition, and especially considering the range of social and political tensions among countries in the region, it is important to remember the other more cooperative rationales that inform internationalization and the traditional cosmopolitan role of higher education. Instilling more cosmopolitan attitudes and values through education could help foster the mutual understanding necessary for regional cooperation and enable East Asian nations to prosper peacefully.