In the past decade, world university rankings such as the Times Higher Education and Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) lists have become highly influential. Japanese universities have recently become notable in these lists for their precipitous decline. The University of Tokyo (Todai) ranks a respectable 46th place in the latest 2018 THE list, but there is only one other Japanese university in the top 200 — Kyoto, in 74th place.

A decade ago, in the QS list, which was aligned with the Times one at the time, Japan had 11 universities in the top 200 and Todai was in the top 20. Both of Japan’s iconic private universities, Waseda and Keio, were in the top 200 in 2008; now neither of them ranks in the top 600. Although Japan’s standings look respectable in the 2016 QS (Asia) list, with five universities among the top 25, tiny Hong Kong had four, and all were ranked higher than those five Japanese universities.

The comparison with Hong Kong is a study in contrasts. Although its population is only about 5 percent of Japan’s, its universities far outrank those in Japan, with five universities in the top 200 in the latest THE list. And while such a statement may be a sweeping generalization that ignores nuances such as government funding priorities, not to mention concerns about the accuracy of the lists, it should be clear that either Hong Kong is doing something right or Japan is doing something wrong — or perhaps it’s a bit of both.

I may be in a unique position to comment on the universities in these two places given that I spent 20 years as an academic staff member at a national Japanese university before coming to Hong Kong to take up a similar post eight years ago. Upon my arrival here in Hong Kong, the learning curve was steep because the systems of operation were so different. And I believe that it is these operational differences that can help explain why higher education in Hong Kong is thriving while in Japan it languishes. One word, more than any other, captures the essence of the difference: accountability.

Individual checks and balances

In Hong Kong universities, accountability begins at the individual level with performance reviews. Whether staff members are tenured or not, they must undergo appraisals at regular intervals. Every three years, academic staff write a self-appraisal of their performance in the areas of research, teaching and service, which is then given a score by a review panel of peers and superiors.

All staff are familiar with the benchmarks in the three areas. For example, a certain number of research outputs — most commonly, internationally refereed journal articles — are expected over a certain period of time. In the area of teaching, because all courses are rated by students via a standardized questionnaire, review panels expect to see an appraisee’s teaching scores. They also expect to see comments from peers who have observed the classes of their colleagues.

In essence, the appraisal is a high-stakes exercise with consequences that can result in job loss for contract staff or no rise in salary and loss of face for tenured staff. The results of the appraisal are also useful during promotional exercises, which are always sent to external referees.

On the other hand, in my 20 years in Japan, not once did I undergo a performance appraisal, and although I was appraised during promotion exercises, the successful outcome decided by the internal panel was never in doubt. Benchmarks for research were nonexistent. Whether and where I published had no bearing on keeping my job.

As for my teaching quality, students filled out questionnaires and scores were returned to me; however, with no follow-up performance review, the scores were for my own consumption only. In other words, in keeping with the culture of tatemae, procedures were carried out for appearances only. Furthermore, my teaching was not observed either by peers or superiors even once. Whether I was a star or a dud in the classroom had no bearing on whether I retained my post.

Accountability at all levels

Beyond individual performance reviews, courses are also reviewed in Hong Kong. For example, the grades I give to students are moderated both internally and externally. This means my peers review a selection of my students’ assignments to ensure I have given sufficient feedback and appropriate grades. External examiners also review course content and make suggestions for modifications, such as a request to update a reading list. These changes are monitored by heads of departments to ensure that the feedback loop is closed.

In contrast, during my time in Japan, although I took my course design seriously, my courses were never monitored for quality. Basically, I could do whatever I wanted as long as I carried out unstated minimums such as showing up for class.

External review is also performed at the program level in Hong Kong. In a recent review of a graduate program I direct, I had to write a long document covering the key performance indicators. These included graduation rates, number of years taken by students to graduate, number of articles published by students, and so on.

The document was sent to approved professors from overseas universities, who read the document and came to Hong Kong. During their panel visit, they quizzed staff and students in order to affirm the accuracy of the document, after which they wrote an assessment report. Then I wrote a report to respond to their recommendations and explain our future improvement plans. This report, in turn, had to be followed up by committees to ensure that the changes were implemented.

And on it goes. Departments and faculties are externally reviewed, and a government body reviews the university itself on a regular basis using a panel of external quality audit experts.

Japan rigged for complacency

In contrast, during my years in Japan, I never came across any systematic internal or external review that had any teeth. True enough, the Japan University Accreditation Association, certified by the education ministry, is an entity that is supposed to conduct quality assurance, but to what effect?

And this brings us back to the issue of accountability and university rankings. When there is a well-established culture of accountability, all members are aware that their performance is being monitored. However, if my experience in a Japanese university is reflective of universities across the country, that culture in Japan is completely lacking. Unlike a system with external monitors, a self-monitoring one, like the one in Japan, lacks the extra edge needed to keep all levels of an organization on its toes. Over time, without checks and balances performed by international auditors that have real consequences, a culture of complacency evolves.

Certainly, the extreme focus on accountability in Hong Kong has drawbacks. Academic staff are constantly writing reports to satisfy the rigorous quality control measures. Senior management spends enormous amounts of time ensuring all the boxes are checked before overseas experts arrive. However, when steeped in the belief that your every move will be assessed in some type of accountability exercise, a culture of striving for excellence develops, and this may be contributing to the high rankings of Hong Kong universities.

Litchis and mikan?

Of course, one could argue I am comparing litchis and mikan. All universities in Japan are infused with Japanese culture. Considering this influence, it is arguably pointless to compare domestic universities with their overseas counterparts because they serve a different purpose in society.

Japanese universities are often described as way stations that give youth a break from the rigors of school and work life. Under this logic, it is Japanese industry that is tasked with the role of pulling the younger generation into line. In this sense, the world rankings are more of a nuisance for the education ministry than a real threat, and the ministry can simply continue its pretense of concern by throwing cash at programs like the Top Global University Project.

Perhaps. But that way of thinking ignores global realities. A decade ago, Japanese universities could survive without foreign students. Given the present sharp decline in domestic student numbers, however, this will be increasingly difficult.

Until now, the recent influx of Chinese and other Asian students have thrown Japanese universities a lifeline. But this may be temporary, as foreign students will naturally gravitate towards universities that offer quality education.

In a world that is increasingly obsessed with ranking metrics, if Japanese universities wish to compete on the international stage, ramping up their accountability systems needs to be at the top of their to-do list.

Paul Stapleton is an associate professor at the Education University of Hong Kong.

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Times Higher Education rankings (2018):

40 University of Hong Kong

44 Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

46 University of Tokyo

58 Chinese University of Hong Kong

74 Kyoto University

Quacquarelli Symonds rankings (2018):

26 University of Hong Kong

28 University of Tokyo

30 Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

36 Kyoto University

46 Chinese University of Hong Kong

49 City University of Hong Kong

56 Tokyo University of Technology

63 Osaka University

76 Tohoku University

95 Hong Kong Polytechnic University

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