A foreigner-friendly field of dreams?

International faculty, students must be valued, not treated as visitors

In the 1989 Oscar-nominated fantasy-drama film “Field of Dreams,” the main character, a farmer played by Kevin Costner, heard a voice that kept whispering the phrase “If you build it, he will come.” The Voice urged Costner’s character to take a leap of faith and build a baseball diamond in the middle of an Iowa cornfield.

It would seem that about five years ago the Voice relocated from Iowa to Japan, where its refrain, “Build it, they will come,” was heard by bureaucrats at the justice and education ministries, as well as by many universities, when they approved the opening of 68 (later to become 74) new law schools as part of legal education reform. The new system was pushed through in response to a 2001 Justice System Reform Council report that proclaimed the need for Japan to “create a justice system for the 21st century,” in part to “internationalize the training of lawyers.”

Fast-forward to today and you would be hard-pressed to hear anyone in Japan utter “internationalize” and “law school” in the same sentence. Instead, because of low bar exam pass rates, the word is that law schools are producing unqualified graduates.

However, contrary to the critics, the problem with the bar passage rate does not lie with the quality of the new law school graduates or the education they received. In reality, the exam is just a spigot, and the opponents of change now have their hands on the valve. By sabotaging the promised increase in the bar passage rate, they have undermined the successful implementation of legal education reform, and the unfortunate result is that many law schools are in danger of turning into little more than overpriced cram schools for the bar exam.

Last year, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, along with 13 select universities, launched the ambitious and well-intentioned “Global 30” Project for Establishing Core Universities for Internationalization. Apparently, the mischievous Voice decided to extend its visa in Japan (let’s hope it doesn’t apply for permanent residence). New faculties, programs, graduate schools and dormitories are quickly being built in the hope that “they will come.” One can’t help but wonder what, if anything, Japan has learned from the law school debacle.

In last week’s Zeit Gist column, Chris Burgess concluded that “the contradictory nature of the (Global 30) project’s goals suggests successful implementation will be problematic.” But even assuming the goals are perfect, there is still a high probability that many of the 13 universities will ultimately fail to successfully implement them. Just as the law school reforms have been sabotaged, the Global 30 programs easily can fall prey to similar interference by the opponents of change. Even before the 13 universities were selected, Global 30 proposals encountered strong resistance from conservative faculty within the candidate institutions, and there is no reason to believe that will go away.

To put it simply, the fundamental barrier to world-class status for Japanese universities is that many faculty members just aren’t that enthusiastic about welcoming large numbers of international teaching staff and students as anything more than visitors.

Whatever the enthusiasm deficit, the reality is that the most successful universities in the world need to attract the best students and faculty. Japan’s neighbors, South Korea and China, have come to understand this, and their top universities are now progressively moving to internationalize their curricula and teaching staff. As a result, Japanese universities that once aspired to world-class status may soon find themselves increasingly falling behind their Asian neighbors. If this trend is ignored, they also run the risk that Japan’s most talented students and researchers may decide to leave Japan, skipping the Japanese system entirely in their search for top-quality global higher education.

An analysis of the QS World University Rankings shows that the weakest indicator of Japanese universities compared to other world-class centers of learning is the proportion of international faculty (the second-weakest indicator is the percentage of international students, so the Global 30 Project, if successful, should yield higher rankings for Japanese universities). According to QS data, at top-ranked Harvard and second-placed Cambridge, international faculty make up between one-third and half of the full-time teaching staff. In Asia, the ratio of international faculty at leading universities such as the University of Hong Kong and National University of Singapore is also about 50-50. At Japan’s most-highly ranked institution, Tokyo University, the ratio is a dismal one-in-16.

Despite bold initial pledges by many Global 30 institutions to attract “top class” talent and significantly increase the number of international faculty, the most recent evidence points to only halfhearted efforts in this direction. A look at the first round of Global 30 job postings on the Japan Research Career Information Network Web site reveals that, so far, most of the 13 universities selected to be centers of internationalization are only interested in employing non-Japanese professors on four- or five-year limited-term nonrenewable contracts. What “top class” students will want to enroll in any of these programs two or three years from now, knowing that the international professors may be dismissed before their junior year? What international students will want to make a commitment to be educated in Japan at a university that has demonstrated no commitment to its international faculty?

In the past, Japanese students, parents and employers alike have largely relied on a university’s name as a simple means of judging the quality of an institution. This is thankfully beginning to change, with increased interest in independent rankings and other comparative measures of quality. International students are even more likely to seek such transparency in institutional information, so next month a group of international educators will formally launch, a noncommercial Web site providing objective information for prospective students and the public on the Global 30 programs. The site will offer annual report cards evaluating and comparing data on the quality of the programs at the Global 30 institutions as well as an ongoing overall assessment of the effectiveness of the Global 30 Project.

Not that international students need to rely on scholars, or even slick university admissions brochures, to tell them what constitutes a good educational experience. Today’s Web-savvy students make extensive use of social media, using Twitter, Facebook and blogs to instantly share the reality of their experiences across the globe. Universities that fail to fully deliver on their promises and provide the high-quality education expected by international students will soon find the well of interested applicants runs dry.

The question isn’t “Will international students come to Japan?” but rather “How long will it last?” Luring students to Japan with the promise of a world-class education in the first year is much easier than keeping them coming and retaining them.

Four or five years from now, the reality will overcome the rhetoric. The choice is clear: Global 30 institutions can transform themselves by providing students with a top-class global education, embracing international students and professors by treating them as equals in every way, or they can use sleight of hand to try and hide the fact that what they really offer is a parochial, second-rate education. Universities choosing to pursue the former strategy will ultimately be rewarded with outstanding international talent, students and faculty alike, and the world-class status that comes with them. Those that choose the latter will soon find recruiting “top class” international “human resources” to be nothing more than a field of dreams.

Jay Klaphake is an associate professor at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. For future report cards on the Global 30 see Send comments to

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