A closed book to outsiders

Japan and South Korea want their universities to attract overseas academic talent, but doubts persist about their readiness for the global market. Michael Fitzpatrick reports

November 13, 2008

Stunning celebrity architect-designed campuses, lectures in English by new foreign recruits, relaxation of work visas for overseas students, Western-style academic years, and generous scholarships...

Could this become the reality of higher education for students and academics in Japan and South Korea as Asia's two economic giants face plummeting student numbers?

The universities' saviours, according to the new thinking, will be foreign students and a mass influx of academics from overseas.

Rather belatedly in an increasingly globalised higher education market, the two are trying to dismantle the barriers that put their higher education systems at the bottom of the list of countries in which students and academics wish to study and work.

Japan is especially worried about the survival of its universities, particularly those in the private sector where most degrees are earned. A record 47.1 per cent of these private universities are under-enrolled this year.

But will the efforts be enough to save some of the most respected institutions in Asia? Both countries harbour deeply conservative attitudes, and when change was promised in the past it failed to materialise.

Despite accelerating globalisation and much talk about "international education", domestic perspectives and agendas still dominate higher education in Japan and South Korea.

Although foreign student numbers are up in both countries and a raft of new proposals to attract foreign research and teachers are under way, many say the plans are flawed, faltering and even insincere given both countries' deeply entrenched conservatism and insular academic cultures - not to mention the language barriers facing overseas visitors.

At a recent Temple University Japan symposium, Bruce Stronach, the institution's American dean, said Japan's education system was too rigid to reshape itself for the future.

He cited government red tape and school administrators and teaching staff ill prepared for the rigours of international competition. Insufficient cross-border or domestic exchanges of personnel and credits are also hindering the internationalisation of Japanese universities, he said.

"Over the past 30 years, Japanese universities have been talking about internationalisation, which means of course that they are not international. It is not just about having foreign faces on the faculty and in the student body.

"It is about whether your education is accessible enough, and of a high-enough quality, that your students can seamlessly fit into classes in other universities in other countries, and that students from other countries can seamlessly adjust to yours. It also means the ability to compete with other universities on the global market for resources such as high-quality students and researchers, high-quality faculty, funding and corporate tie-ups."

Stronach, who arrived in Japan five years ago, became the first non-Japanese to lead a public university in the country when he assumed the post of president of the relatively outward-looking Yokohama City University (YCU). He spent much time battling against deep-rooted conservatism, but he says change is now coming - albeit slowly.

"Speaking as the first foreigner to lead a public university (in Japan), I can tell you that although things are changing, even within an institution that chose a foreigner as president there were still many faculty members and administrators to whom courting outsiders remains anathema. Imagine what it is like in institutions that are even more traditional."

Meanwhile, in neighbouring South Korea, a suggested shake-up of the education system has run into its own problems.

The number of universities in the country rose steeply in the 1990s and resulted in a lowering of entry standards. A staggering 80 per cent of South Korea's high-school graduates now enter university.

In Diamond Dilemma: Shaping Korea for the 21st Century, Tariq Hussain suggests several reasons why the country's higher education sector is unfit for international competition.

"Korea's education system does not create globally competitive resources. It creates an unusually closely knit elite, which has little interest in sharing its own perks and position with the rest of society. It all adds up to low return on a huge education investment."

Even though the number of foreigners in Korea is more than 1 million, about 50,000 of them students, the country suffers (as does Japan) in the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings primarily because of the paucity of foreign students, foreign teachers and research programmes, Hussain says.

The country also has to grapple (like Japan does) with a serious depletion in the number of university-age students because of a falling birth rate. This problem is compounded, Hussain says, by the fact that many young Koreans are fleeing to foreign shores because a degree from a prestigious overseas university will often open more doors at home than degrees from even high-ranking domestic equivalents.

"Korea has a substantial amount of students studying outside Korea," says Bo Hansson, a higher education analyst at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). "More than 100,000 study abroad and make up 10 per cent of the international student body in the US and 17 per cent in Japan. Achieving a better balance seems to be a welcome initiative."

Hussain agrees that the best indicator of Korea's education crisis is the "exodus" of young Koreans, which is reflected in its dismal "university trade balance". He says: "For every foreign student who comes to Korea, there are 18 Koreans leaving the country to study abroad. This is the worst ratio of any OECD country."

Attracting foreign students to Japan or Korea has never been easy. Today's figures tell the story: Japan has 120,000 foreign students, while South Korea boasts just 50,000. The US, by comparison, is host to about 580,000 students from overseas, while France and Germany accept about 250,000.

"Foreign students make up less than 1 per cent of the tertiary student body in Korea, compared with more than 15 per cent in Australia and New Zealand," says Hansson.

As a sweetener, Japanese institutions have been offering discounts on tuition fees, with Tokyo's Waseda University, rated among Japan's top five, promising scholarships to the 60 per cent of foreign students who apply.

Mincio Nitti is professor of education at the University of Tokyo - Todai as it is better known - Japan's top-ranked institution. He says that the number of overseas students is rising, but not because Japan has upped its academic game.

"The number of foreign students is increasing and will increase. Top universities like Todai are targeting talented students in competition with US and European universities. Perhaps thanks to US reluctance to give foreigners access to its universities after 9/11, the effort has been successful for us."

But he agrees that even high-ranked universities such as his will have continuing difficulty in attracting foreign students because of the language barrier.

"I do not expect a dramatic increase of foreign students in Japanese universities because of this. English-speaking countries still have the advantage in attracting foreign students."

Recently, 130-year-old Todai entered into a partnership with Yale University to help raise its profile abroad. It is also planning to double the proportion of graduate courses taught in English to 20 per cent.

"There have been some efforts to offer English-based courses at several universities, including Todai. My impression is they are not quite successful. Does it make sense to import English-speaking professors to teach English-speaking students in Japan? It can be done in English-speaking countries more efficiently," Nitti says.

Despite the problems, faculty changes, encouraged by the Ministry of Education, are taking place in a bid to attract more English-speaking students from abroad and to address the extraordinary dearth of students from outside Asia studying in the nation with the world's second-biggest economy.

The first British professor to head a major Japanese institution, Paul Snowden, is pushing for reform at Waseda, where he was a faculty dean for four years. He helped set up the university's School of International Liberal Studies (SILS), where all classes are in English for its 600 students, a third of whom are deliberately selected from overseas.

"An interesting side-effect for the top-ranking universities of recruiting more overseas students and teachers will be their rise in international rankings such as Times Higher Education-QS'. So far, Japanese universities have suffered unduly in those rankings because of their sparse international population, but this may change."

The Japanese Government's target of attracting 300,000 overseas students means more opportunities for foreign academics on the nation's campuses, Snowden points out.

"The Education Ministry seems satisfied with SILS' 30 per cent or so of foreign staff, but (it) also seems not disturbed by the prospect of yet more," he says.

"Provision of curriculums in English will be a major pivot for this at other universities, and Japanese teachers with, for example, US PhDs will not be enough. The problem will be finding English-speaking faculty with sufficient ability in Japanese to survive and participate in university life as a whole."

Given the demands of learning Japanese or Korean from scratch, it is not surprising that neither country is popular as an academic posting on the international circuit. Pay may be favourable, but there are barriers to a happy life in these two Asian superpowers that make them an unappealing home for foreign and even domestic academics.

According to many critical observers, Japan's overbearing hierarchical education system and the lack of structural reform in its national universities results in a deservedly poor reputation in academic research. They cite as evidence the fact that all recent Japanese Nobel prizewinners work outside Japan.

South Korea does scarcely better. The OECD's Hansson says barely 5 per cent of the nation's students are engaged in postgraduate study, compared with 20 per cent in the UK, the US and Canada.

Some - who talk of "closed minds" and "intellectual cartels" - believe that Japan actively discourages foreign researchers. The most vocal critic is Ivan P. Hal, a former professor who has taught in the country and is author of Cartels of the Mind: Japan's Intellectual Closed Shop.

He accuses Japan of "denying access to foreign attorneys, correspondents, professors and scientific researchers with the same systematic efficiency applied to car parts, semiconductors, baseball bats and beef".

What he calls the "nationalistic utilitarianism" of the Ministry of Education is, he argues, exemplified by an official statement that "the Japanese education system has long been designed for the purpose of training manpower for the Japanese society alone".

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a British professor teaching in Japan confesses that change is so slow that he is not even worried about competition from potential new recruits on campus.

"This (drive for internationalisation) is one of those initiatives that occasionally arises then disappears. The Ministry of Education is generally considered a joke. Competition from abroad is not encouraged in any aspect of Japanese life, although institutions will always welcome gaijin (foreigners) who have made the effort to integrate.

"The whole system of private universities is a closed shop, and nobody wants to upset the apple cart - much like Japan itself."

Snowden, however, thinks change is inevitable, if slow in coming. That he and Stronach have been chosen to lead top universities suggests that attitudes are shifting. Interviewed after taking up his post, Snowden told a local newspaper that his appointment was the "smashing of a glass ceiling".

"A few foreigners have been appointed or elected to administrative posts as well as to associate deans, deans and a few university presidents, even. This will increase as more dedicated foreign faculty rise through the system."

The thin spread of foreign staff on campus remains a barrier to recruiting the students Japan's universities desperately need, Stronach points out.

"However, while the combined conservative nature and power of the senior faculty is a major impediment, it is not the main problem with attracting foreign students to Japan," he says. "I know Japanese universities are on the right track, but universities around the world are moving ahead rapidly, so if they are to catch up they must go even faster."

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