The World University Rankings 2015-2016, announced Oct. 1 by the Times Higher Education, defied expectations as the University of Tokyo, which ranked 23rd in the previous year, dropped to the 43rd spot and the ranking of Kyoto University fell from 59th to 88th.

The Tokyo Institute of Technology, Osaka University and Tohoku University, which placed between 100th and 200th in the previous year, fell to below the 200th level.

The University of Tokyo, which had previously enjoyed the highest rank among universities in Asia, has been surpassed by the National University of Singapore and Peking University.

All these have turned Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s university initiative — a call for placing 10 Japanese universities among the world’s top 100 — into an unrealistic dream. The fact is that only 11 Japanese universities rank among the top 500 in the world.

The global rankings by the Times Higher Education are determined by a weighted average of points in five categories, with the full marks set at 100 points for each category. The weighting ratios for the five categories are 0.3 for “teaching,” 0.3 for “research,” 0.3 for “citations,” 0.075 for “international outlook” and 0.025 for “industry income.”

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology has long attributed the low rankings of Japanese universities to their poor showings in the “international outlook” category, which the ministry says has been due to the small number of people who come from overseas to study or teach at Japanese universities.

That is why the ministry has drawn up a plan to increase the number of overseas students to 300,000 and encouraged universities to provide more classes taught in English.

But even if these plans do raise the score for the “international outlook” category by 10 points, it would only result in elevating the total score by less than one point.

Japanese universities are particularly lagging behind their foreign counterparts in the “citations” category. Since the score in this category reflects the quality of papers written by teachers, the low score means that Japanese universities have only limited numbers of researchers capable of writing quality papers that are highly valued in academic circles and quoted by their peers around the world.

Among the top three Asian universities, the National University of Singapore received a score of 79.4 points in the “citations” category ( 26th in the World University Ranking), Peking University 69.1 points (42nd) and the University of Tokyo 60.9 points (43rd). Since the weight given to “citations” is 0.3, the difference in scores in this category accounts for 5.6 points in the difference in the overall points between the National University of Singapore and the University of Tokyo, and 2.5 points in the difference between Peking University and the University of Tokyo.

Apparently exasperated by the prevailing situation, the education ministry has launched a review of Japan’s higher education system and created a special panel to implement reform in high school education, university entrance examinations and university education curriculums.

The aim of this three-pronged reform program is aimed at educating university students in such a way as to make them fully equipped with three scholastic elements. The first is sufficient knowledge and skills; the second is the faculties of thinking, judgment and expression; and the third is the attitude to cooperate with a wide variety of people to learn but without losing one’s independence and autonomy.

So far, university entrance examinations have placed so much emphasis on testing applicants’ knowledge and skills that high schools have had no choice but to attach overwhelming importance to these two areas. The education ministry is seeking to redress this problem by drastically changing the entrance examination system so that both high schools and universities provide students with in-depth training in the second and third of the aforementioned scholastic elements.

It may be true that the poor showings of Japanese universities in the World University Rankings is due to their inferiority in the second element. But even if average university students in Japan indeed fall behind their European, Chinese and South Korean counterparts in the faculties of thinking, judgment and expression, the gap can’t be eliminated by simply reforming school education and the entrance examination system because what can be taught in classrooms using textbooks is limited to knowledge and skills.

The ability of reading and comprehension and mathematical literacy constitute the basis for the faculties of thinking, judgment and expression, and they can be acquired only through students’ own efforts. For students to obtain reading and comprehension ability, reading literary, philosophical and historical works is indispensable.

Mathematical literacy, which forms the basis for logical thinking and expression, can’t be learned in classrooms either and, in my view, can only be acquired through self-study of mathematics.

The most essential factor in acquiring the second of the three scholastic elements is that each student finds joy in and become enthusiastic about reading books and studying mathematics on their own. Not much disparity may result among graduates as to their specialized knowledge and skills if they have regularly attended university classes. But immeasurable differences must appear among them with regard to their faculties of thinking, judgment and expression, depending on how much they have read books and studied mathematics on their own.

One thing that puzzles me is the education ministry’s call for nurturing the “attitude to cooperate with a wide variety of people to learn but without losing one’s independence and autonomy” as the third scholastic element. “Cooperate” means working together with others to achieve a common aim. The attitude to cooperate with others may be necessary in experimental natural sciences. But I believe that many of the people who are highly talented in mathematics, theoretical physics, philosophy and literature are inept at working closely with others. As I stated earlier, acquiring the second scholastic element requires self-study, but emphasis on cooperation with others to learn could be an impediment to acquiring that element.

I don’t think that the education ministry’s reform aimed at elevating the global rankings of Japanese universities will bear fruit. Yet there is a real need to raise the second scholastic element and to train outstanding researchers.

At present, Japan ranks at the bottom of the OECD member nations in terms of the ratio of spending for higher education in gross domestic product. The budget must be increased drastically to raise the pay of university teachers, double the number of full-time teachers and rectify the unstable employment status of researchers.

The global rankings of Japanese universities are bound to keep falling unless these steps are taken.

Takamitsu Sawa is president of Shiga University.

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