More than 1,600 foreign students at the Tokyo University of Social Welfare have gone missing in the past three years, according to recent revelations.

The education ministry and the Immigration Services Agency have punished the university for poor enrollment management by banning the educational institution, at least for the time being, from accepting students in the category of non-regular “research students” and by suspending issuance of visas to those students.

This category, which is not subject to the designated quota, has been used by the university as a legal loophole to lure foreign students. There is a compelling case for the disciplinary actions against the university.

The number of foreign students at the university has soared 15-fold in five years to some 5,000, the second largest among Japanese universities. Of that total, 80 percent are non-regular students including the research students.

The university has defended the program as “a rescue” for foreign students who have failed to formally enroll at any university in Japan.

But this claim is hardly convincing given the dismal learning environment at the university for research students. It doesn’t have a sufficient number of administrative officers nor decent classroom facilities for such students, for example.

The university’s administration should be held strictly responsible.

It is said that some other Japanese universities and vocational colleges are attracting unreasonably large numbers of foreign students in similarly shady ways. They effectively offer young foreign nationals backdoor access to Japan’s labor market in return for entrance fees and other payments. This dubious foreign student business has been a subject of debate at the Diet.

One social factor behind this problem is Japan’s shrinking youth population, which has left one-third of private universities failing to meet their intake quotas.

Responding to the problem, the education ministry issued at the end of March a warning to universities nationwide against accepting foreign students as a way to secure sufficient income.

Universities should not be allowed to take advantage of foreign young people’s desire to work in Japan as a way to cover an income shortfall without taking good care of them.

Such universities are handling foreign students in a grossly irresponsible manner and seriously undermining the international credibility of Japanese universities in general.

It is crucial for the government to grasp the entire picture of this problem through all-out investigations into individual cases including the Tokyo University of Social Welfare.

One important question is why such an egregious practice has gone undetected for so long.

At a news conference, education minister Masahiko Shibayama acknowledged that his ministry was far too slow in discovering the unscrupulous practice, adding one reason has probably been its unfounded faith in the honesty and ethical integrity of educational institutions.

In 2008, the government set a target of increasing the number of foreign students learning in the country to 300,000 by 2020 as part of its policy efforts to make Japan “a country open to the world.”

The government may have been less rigorous than it should have been in scrutinizing the foreign student programs at universities as it has been too eager to achieve the goal to exercise due caution.

It is urgent for the government to re-examine the learning environment for foreign students at universities and review the current system of college and university evaluations by independent assessment bodies.

In Japan, some 300,000 foreign nationals with a student visa are now working. A wide range of industries and businesses, including convenience stores and restaurants, are supported by low-cost labor provided by such foreign youth.

Last year, the Diet passed a government-sponsored bill to revise the immigration control law to allow more foreign nationals to work in Japan.

But the policy efforts to help newly arriving foreign workers blend into Japanese society, such as providing an effective program to learn Japanese, have been put on the back burner.

The problem of missing foreign students reflects some deep-seated problems with Japanese society, which has shown a tendency to treat foreign workers not as its legitimate members but as “cheap manpower.”

The revelations have called on Japan to do serious soul-searching on this undesirable national trait and take steps to cure it.

--The Asahi Shimbun, June 13