Asia University Rankings 2017: THE Japan ranking will show insularity must end

Akiyoshi Yonezawa looks at what new domestic league table might tell the world about Japan’s strengths and weaknesses

March 15, 2017
Two women look at pollen robots in Japan
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Two women look at spherical robots designed to measure the levels of pollen across Japan

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The positioning of Japanese universities in global and Asian university rankings has gradually dropped since international rankings began in the mid-2000s. Although Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, claims that his administration is supporting a drive to position 10 Japanese universities in the top 100 in the world, government funding for the country’s top universities has stagnated under competing policy agendas – such as shoring up pension schemes to reassure Japan’s rapidly ageing population and maintaining balanced finances under the extraordinarily high government debt.

It is meaningless to aim to improve a university’s ranking position without considering the institution’s unique mission. That said, international recognition is crucial for universities and for their countries to ensure that they can attract the international talent and resources needed to develop the knowledge economy.

So plans by Times Higher Education to develop a bespoke national ranking for Japanese universities, in partnership with the education information company Benesse, are timely. The planned new Japan University Rankings would be the first exercise to make accessible to a worldwide audience detailed performance information on several hundred Japanese universities; it would combine elements of the World University Rankings with a focus on the national missions of universities, employing a powerful set of indicators spotlighting teaching and student success.

So what might this groundbreaking innovation reveal about the opportunities and challenges ahead for the universities in Japan?

A THE Japan University Rankings would ensure that the world is much more aware of the country’s universities. While Japan has various rankings and general information on its universities and their strengths is published in the national language, it is very difficult to acquire detailed, comprehensive information on Japanese universities in English.

The global rankings published in English tend to focus heavily on research performance – particularly in the sciences – and thus all but ignore the universities that have excellent standing in the humanities and social sciences and those that are providing excellent teaching. A domestic university ranking for Japan by a major international organisation such as THE will help the international community to discover unknown, excellent universities that, in many cases, already have a strong domestic reputation.

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The ranking will also provide a new perspective for assessing the quality of Japanese universities. Unlike the various current domestic league tables, the planned THE-Benesse ranking is the first exercise to develop a fully comprehensive assessment of Japanese universities. Direct comparisons between public and private universities and between comprehensive and specialist, small-scale institutions and colleges are a particularly big challenge. There is a substantial difference between international perspectives, which tend to focus on the quality of and the resources allocated to university teaching and research, and domestic perspectives, which place priority on student selectivity, sound tuition and affordable fees that assure competition among talents from wider social groups. How this ranking will allow for and adjust to these gaps between domestic and international perspectives should be given close attention.

The new initiative will reshape Japanese universities’ approach to the international student market. Japan currently attracts more than 200,000 students from abroad, but the number seeking degrees, especially at the undergraduate level, has stagnated in the past five years. This is primarily because the number of Chinese and Koreans, who have an advantage in their ability to acquire the Japanese language, is falling significantly now that they can afford to study in North America, Europe and Australia.

At the same time, the historic gap in research performance between the top universities in Japan and those elsewhere in Asia is closing. Japanese universities need urgently to expand their education programmes in English to compete with their regional rivals in attracting quality talent. This ranking might highlight the relatively small number of Japanese institutions that have succeeded in luring talent from around the world through internationalisation.

The ranking might also have an impact on Japan’s labour market. The slow pace of internationalisation among Japan’s universities in some way reflects the country’s sclerotic labour market, in which most companies still prefer to hire fresh bachelor’s or master’s degree graduates from selective universities and train them in-house. Globalisation requires a drastic change of corporate governance and human resource management in both domestic and multinational enterprises operating in Japan. Diversity, in particular more multicultural recruitment strategies, should be emphasised to attract women and international talents who can energise Japan’s economy.

Finally, a much stronger commitment by Japanese universities to the international community, in terms of education and research, is highly recommended. Japanese universities, like the country more widely, have not reached the stage of internationalisation at which they are threatened by globalisation, as is occurring in the UK and the US. As seen in Asian and global university rankings, the top universities in Japan are losing international visibility because of their isolation in their regional and their global dimensions. While the rankings might provide information pertinent to a global audience, they are not enough to make Japan’s universities connected to the world unless the universities themselves commit decisively to the regional and global community.

Akiyoshi Yonezawa is director of the Office of Institutional Research at Tohoku University.

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Print headline: Insularity must end

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