In the 2014-15 edition of the World University Rankings, released by the Times Higher Education on Oct. 2, the University of Tokyo managed to remain 23rd in the world and No. 1 in Asia, as in the previous year. But the National University of Singapore, which placed second in the region, is catching up fast.
As was the case the previous year, five Japanese universities were among the top 200 universities of the world. With the exception of the University of Tokyo, however, their ranks fell considerably.
It is quite unlikely that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s initiative of elevating 10 Japanese universities to rank among the global top 100 by 2020 will be achieved. The supremacy of European and American universities remains unswerving while universities in China, South Korea and Hong Kong are advancing rapidly.
Indeed, three South Korean institutions were among the top 10 universities in Asia, followed by two each from Japan, China and Hong Kong and one from Singapore.
In ranking universities worldwide, the Times Higher Education takes into account five factors each with a maximum point of 100: (1) teaching: the learning environment; (2) research: volume, income and reputation; (3) citations: research influence; (4) industry income: innovation; and (5) international outlook: staff, students and research.
Of these, “teaching,” “research” and “citations” are each given a weight of 30 percent, “international outlook” 7.5 percent and “industry income” 2.5 percent. And the ranking for each school is determined based on the weighted average of the scores.
Perhaps having been inspired by Japanese professional baseball teams, which are eager to hire players from abroad to reinforce themselves, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology is urging national university corporations to recruit professors from foreign countries.
But there are four major obstacles to such a scheme:
First, professors at major American universities earn an average annual salary of about $200,000. Even assistant professors fresh from obtaining doctoral degrees make some $100,000 a year. It must not be forgotten that these salaries are compensation for nine months’ work annually, excluding the summer vacation period. Some prominent professors use the summer months to earn another sum equivalent to one-third of their annual salary by receiving research subsidies from outside sources.
This means that top-class U.S. university professors make an annual average of about $270,000 while assistant professors earn around $130,000. That makes it all but impossible to recruit U.S. professors unless they are guaranteed an annual compensation that is at least twice as much as what Japanese professors earn at national universities.
Second, researchers in the U.S. attach importance to having an environment in which there are many colleagues to engage in joint research projects and in which they can obtain the most up-to-date information in the relevant disciplines in real time. Japanese universities that don’t have a large number of outstanding researchers won’t be qualified to recruit U.S. professors.
Third, those trained in the U.S. research environment would find it quite difficult to adapt themselves to the research environment in Japan in which they have to obey their senior professors as their “master” just as professional sumo wrestlers are required to obey their “stable master” — a phenomenon especially notable in the engineering and medical departments.
Therefore, it is incumbent on Japanese universities to free themselves of this parasitic indigenous system.
Fourth, it must be understood that U.S. professors will encounter much inconvenience and discomfort if they live in Japan with their families because English is widely not understood outside the university environment. Therefore, the only incentive for them to take a job at a Japanese university would be an offer of high annual income of around $300,000 plus a lineup of talented joint researchers.
I would propose the following steps to elevate the educational and research standards of Japanese universities to the point where five of them are able to rank among the world’s top 100 by 2020 — which is only 50 percent of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s target:
• The most effective and easiest measure is to increase the number of professors from abroad.
But they must be capable of scoring high marks in volume of research and in citations. But it is almost impossible to recruit highly reputable professors in their prime from overseas just as it is difficult for professional baseball teams to hire top foreign players.
The best alternative would be to recruit experienced, older professors who are close to retirement. Their contributions in research and citations would sharply raise Japanese universities’ global standing if they accounted for at least 10 percent of the teaching staff. This would, however, require paying them large enough salaries to make up for the cost of moving to Japan.
On Sept. 26, the education ministry designated 13 universities as “super global universities” — candidates to rank among the global top 100 — each receiving a subsidy of ¥420 million a year for 10 years. However this sum is barely enough to hire 20 foreign teachers for each university. This will increase each university’s world ranking score by only 1 or 2 points at the most.
• Making the job of teaching at universities an attractive profession — and thus getting well-qualified young students to aspire to pursue a teaching career — is an indispensable measure for elevating the educational and research standards of universities.
But the current annual income of national university professors — slightly over ¥10 million — is much too low compared with the earnings of managers at private corporations or government agencies, or professionals like medical doctors and attorneys-at-law.
Thus it is essential to increase by at least 50 percent the salary for teachers of national university corporations, both Japanese and foreign.
• A stern warning must be issued to the education ministry about its policy of giving little importance to humanities and social sciences.
According to the Times Higher Education’s top 100 rankings in different disciplines, a university in Hong Kong was the only Asian university to rank in the humanities category. In the field of social sciences, two universities each from Hong Kong and China ranked among the top 100, followed by one each from South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan. From Japan, the University of Tokyo made the list but at 89th place.
Since the days of rapid economic growth, the Japanese government has attached greater importance to natural sciences and engineering in its policies for higher education. The education ministry must rectify its posture of evaluating learning and science only from the utilitarian standpoint, which was demonstrated in its recent notice that social sciences sections should be either abolished or shifted to areas where there are high social needs.
The government must squarely face the reality that it is going to be all but impossible for Japan even to achieve 50 percent of Abe’s target. It should seriously consider the latest findings by the Times Higher Education — in which the rankings of all Japanese universities fell — and undertake a fundamental review of its university education policies.
Takamitsu Sawa is president of Shiga University.
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