Universities aim to boost their global ranking

by Mami Maruko

Staff Writer

The government has announced it will provide funding to 37 leading public and private universities in a bid to boost their global competitiveness.

They will receive annual grants for up to 10 years to boost the number of foreign staff, secure more overseas admissions and hopefully raise their international ranking.

Last month, an education ministry panel of experts drawn from education, medicine and industry selected successful candidates for the Top Global University Project, out of 104 that applied.

Some experts are skeptical that Japanese universities can reach the global premier league within 10 years, citing hurdles such as the difficulty of securing quality foreign researchers.

But the ministry appears to recognize this. It has adopted a two-track approach, ranking institutions as belonging to one of two categories.

Type-A schools are being urged to raise their game to the level of Oxford and Harvard.

Type-B universities are expected to develop their existing international projects and boost their international profile further.

The 13 type-A institutions include Hokkaido University, the University of Tokyo, Keio University and Waseda University.

There are 24 type-B universities, including Chiba University, Sophia University and Kyoto’s Ritsumeikan University.

Here are some questions and answers about the program:

What do these schools need to accomplish?

The universities must “reform their institutions and focus on internationalization — with the aim of attaining a global standard,” said Hiroshi Ota, a professor at Hitotsubashi University and the director of its Global Education Program.

“It’s really tough for universities to transform themselves,” he said, citing the difficulty of overcoming institutional inertia and shedding baggage acquired over decades.

It is no longer a matter of adding a new internationalization department, he said, but rather the need for a fundamental overhaul — such as replacing staff.

Ota added that it is not only the universities on the list that face a “thorny path” but also those which were excluded, such as Hitotsubashi.

“It’s tough for the dropouts, because they are labeled as failures,” Ota said. “For the chosen ones to meet global standards in the next decade will be hard. The universities will need to change their whole way of being, from the foundations.”

He added that a clear divide will emerge between those that are on the list and those that are not.

What does the Top Global University Project aim to do?

The program was introduced at the start of this fiscal year in April.

The government decided to try to create a handful of universities with enough prestige and credibility that their graduates will walk into positions of global leadership. It realized this would cost money, so it allocated funds.

The program will run from Oct. 1 this year through the end of fiscal year 2023. The progress of the universities will be evaluated regularly.

How were schools chosen?

The government invited institutions to apply from April, and set a deadline of the end of May.

A total of 104 universities applied, each submitting an 80-page explanation of how they aim to change over 10 years. They set numerical targets for increased numbers of foreign staff and students, and declared how they plan to strengthen study-abroad programs and institutional collaboration with overseas universities.

The document was not the only basis for judgment: The panel also interviewed staff from each university.

The total budget for the program is ¥7.7 billion. The amount to be awarded varies, but typically a type-A institution will receive ¥420 million annually, and type-B bodies will receive ¥170 million.

What examples did the universities give?

Chiba University plans to boost exchanges with Mahidol University in Thailand, an institution with which it already has links. It also plans to set up a campus in Thailand.

Furthermore, by 2023 it plans to add more than 160 foreigners or Japanese graduates of foreign universities to its research and teaching personnel.

The university currently has 256 such staff and aims to hit a target of 420 within the decade.

Will the project work?

Satoshi Shirai, an assistant professor at Bunka Gakuen University, said the government is focusing too heavily on the international profile of universities and skimming over the need for high-quality research and teaching.

“Japanese universities have been trying to reform in the last decade or two, and most of their plans have failed,” Shirai said.

He said the reforms include increasing the range of graduate courses on offer, ensuring “yutori kyoiku” (pressure-free education) and setting up law schools.

Shirai added that dubbing institutions participating in the latest project “super global universities” is “stupid,” and that he believes the effort is destined to fail.

One problem is the numerical targets. Setting “unrealistic” goals such as boosting the number of foreign teaching staff by a significant percentage means nothing, he said, if the teachers are recruited without regard for their skill or the content of the courses on offer.

“It means nothing. It’s only something the universities drew up with slogans and themes designed to appeal to the education ministry. And the universities are doing it because they need the money,” he said.

Shirai said participating schools are straying “far from their fundamental goals, which is . . . research and enhancing the quality of education.”