More than 1,600 foreign students have gone missing from a Tokyo-based social welfare university, which has been ordered by the education ministry to stop accepting non-regular research students.

The education ministry and the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau announced on June 11 that 1,610 foreign students in total between fiscal 2016 and fiscal 2018 have "disappeared" from Tokyo University and Graduate School of Social Welfare.

The education ministry said that the disappearances occurred because the university readily accepted foreign students and that it didn’t adequately manage its enrollment. It said the responsibility of the university is "huge."

As non-regular research students, who were preparing to enter the university, number the most whose current whereabouts are unknown, the ministry instructed the university to postpone accepting students in that category for the time being.

Education minister Masahiko Shibayama took some of the blame at a news conference on June 11.

“We were late in capturing the entire scope of the problem and lost time in setting up necessary corrective measures,” he said.

Shibayama also said that the ministry will conduct wider investigations to determine if similar situations occurred at other universities.

The education ministry and the Immigration Bureau conducted five on-site inspections at the university’s four campuses in Tokyo, Gunma Prefecture and Nagoya between March and May.

They found that the missing foreign students numbered 305 in fiscal 2016, 482 in fiscal 2017 and 823 in fiscal 2018, marking consecutive increases each year.

Other than regular undergraduate and graduate students, the university has created categories for foreign students including non-regular research students who were preparing to enter the university.

For fiscal 2016, 2017 and 2018, in particular, the number of foreign non-regular research students surged.

In fiscal 2018, the number of research students reached 2,656, which accounts for more than half of the total foreign student population of 5,133. Among the missing students over the three fiscal years, 1,113 were non-regular research students.

The university accepted the non-regular research students as students who can study Japanese while taking classes, which can be later accepted as university credits.

But the ministry decided that the category had become a supplementary education course for foreign students whose Japanese language ability was insufficient.

PROPER STUDY ENVIRONMENT NOT PROVIDED BY UNIVERSITY

The university explained that it had "rescued" foreign students who had no place to go. But through the investigation, the reality of an improper study environment emerged.

According to the education ministry, the Oji campus, located in Tokyo’s Kita Ward, has used remodeled rooms in a multi-tenant building that included a convenience store and public bath and also used remodeled apartments, in addition to the main two buildings on campus.

There were restrooms located in makeshift classrooms. Students who were not taking classes often enter the rooms to use them, then exit, while other students are studying.

“I had the impression that those facilities were prepared in haste in response to the surging number of foreign students," an education ministry official said. "We have to correct such an improper environment.”

The university said that it was asked for assistance by foreign students and accepted them as one-year, non-regular research students because there are increasing numbers who can’t go elsewhere. For example, these include students who can’t enter vocational schools after studying at language schools.

The university said it was unable to place all students in main school buildings, which led to preparing classrooms in the second floor of a public bath and other locations as temporary makeshift measures.

One reason for the increase of missing students, the university said, is that “they were unable to extend their student visas due to too much part-time work and they ended up not coming to school.”

After the problem came to light, the university said, “We were betrayed by students who we rescued.”

However, the education ministry pointed out that the university had lacked making proper arrangements to accept larger number of foreign students.

A 25-year-old female foreign student who commuted to the university as a research student in 2018 said, “Teachers didn’t teach anything and research students also rarely studied."

The woman said that there were small numbers of students attending classes and most of her classmates worked part time even during the day as staff members of cleaning hotel rooms, restaurants and "bento" lunch box factories.

The woman said that she entered the university after graduating from a Japanese language school, being introduced by an acquaintance.

“I expected to learn about business, but I was surprised that most of the classes were those in which students were just learning Japanese by using dictionaries on their own.”

(This article was written by Ryo Miyazaki, Fumio Masutani and Seiko Sadakuni.)