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Plans don’t make the grade

by Takamitsu Sawa

Last November, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology released a “Plan to Reform National Universities,” which, among other things, set a target of making at least 10 Japanese universities rank among the world’s top 100.

In the World University Rankings of the Times Higher Education, published in a supplement to the Times of London, schools of higher education are ranked globally on the basis of their weighted average scores in five categories on a scale of 100. Three principal categories — teaching (learning environment), research (volume, income and reputation) and citations of papers (research influence) — are given a weight of 30 percent each.

The remaining two — international diversity and industry-university collaboration — are weighted at 7.5 percent and 2.5 percent, respectively.

When officials of the Japan Association of National Universities and the education ministry met Dec. 6 to exchange opinions, a ministry official said that achieving the target would require further internationalization of universities by such means as hiring more teachers from abroad and increasing the number students from foreign countries.

I dared to question the official: “The weight of international diversity is a mere 7.5 percent. Even if the University of Tokyo succeeds in raising its score in this category from the present 29.6 points to Harvard University’s 66.2 points, its weighted average score will rise by only 1.65 points.

“Shouldn’t greater efforts be directed toward getting higher scores in teaching, research and citation categories by improving the educational and research environment and by increasing the number of dissertations published in international academic journals and then reported at academic meetings?”

The official said, “Increasing the number of foreign teachers would raise the scores in the research and citation categories.”

My sarcastic reply: “I see. You want to make our universities like professional baseball teams.” That drew laughter from other university presidents.

That said, a university will have to pay an annual salary of around ¥25 million if it wants to hire an “excellent” professor around 40 years old from overseas, and at least ¥12 million to recruit a young foreign teacher with a bright future who has just obtained a doctorate.

National universities in Japan are so numerous that it is difficult for the education ministry to allocate its given budget to them in cost-effective ways. That situation has led the ministry to let universities use at their discretion a much larger portion of subsidies provided for the sake of their operations.

Since it costs a lot of money to employ highly qualified teachers from abroad, the education ministry is thinking of allocating additional funds for hiring foreign professors to universities that stand a good chance of placing in the world’s top 100. That means money allocated to other universities with poorer odds will be cut to the bare minimum. The ministry aims to elevate the standards of top national universities through “optimum distribution of resources” based on the process of “selection and concentration,” which is the “logic of a strong man.” It is difficult to predict whether this strategy will prove successful because it is impossible for humans, who are not God, to foresee how young researchers will develop their talent or what the results of their projects will be.

In distributing subsidies for the operation of universities, it is desirable that the ministry properly combine “concentration and diversification” by fully taking into consideration the difficulties associated with making selections.

The education ministry is eager to increase the number not only of foreign professors but also of students from other countries. I have doubts about a plan to increase the number of foreign students to 300,000. That would be equivalent to 10 percent of the 3 million undergraduate and postgraduate students now studying at Japanese universities.

I don’t think such an increase in the number of foreigners studying in Japan will lead to elevated international competitiveness at Japanese universities. I say this because the United States offers much higher standards of education at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels compared with Japan. American universities also offer much more academic impetus to students in research, as they are blessed with an environment in which they can concentrate on their projects.

It is for these reasons that talented students from China, South Korea, India and other Asian countries aspire to study in the U.S. Their second choice is either Australia or New Zealand. It is a universally accepted fact that those who cannot make their way to any of those countries choose Japan as the third-best place for receiving advanced education.

European and American students seeking to study in Japan are limited to those who set their hearts on studying Japanese literature, art, politics and economy. It is hard to expect an increase in the number of talented European and American students who wish to come to Japan to pursue studies in the natural or life sciences or in engineering.

Under these circumstances, the government’s insistence on achieving a numerical target for foreign students studying in Japan will result in a further deterioration of student quality.

Those engaged in university education, including myself, welcome the government’s ambition to reform universities so that they can compete in the global arena. But we must not forget the legacy of failures from the government’s university reform projects of the past quarter century — such as when it placed greater importance on postgraduate education and on the creation of new graduate schools to nurture legal professionals.

It might not be so bad if the latest plan for national university reform ends up as pie in the sky. I just hope it does not lead to a worse university education in Japan.

Takamitsu Sawa is president of Shiga University, Japan.