Commentary / Japan

Oxford lessons for Todai

by Kevin Rafferty

Special To The Japan Times

Professor Andrew Hamilton gently declined the invitation to tell Japanese universities how they should meet the challenges of the 21st century; but then over the course of a speech, a small discussion group, an interview and two hours of drinks and snacks with a few Oxford alumni he showed why his university — Oxford — is a world leader and Japanese universities are lagging.

His lessons are that a world-leading university needs an international outlook; dedication to quality research and excellence; a spirit of enterprise and invention with the surrounding community; competition and cooperation with other leading universities; the warm support of benefactors and alumni; and an independent spirit ready to stand up to government.

It is a useful checklist that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as well as the University of Tokyo’s new president, Makoto Gonokami and other Japanese university heads should ponder to see where their institutions are failing. Hamilton was too modest to add that it needs someone like Hamilton himself to be the leader orchestrating the excellence.

Hamilton is vice chancellor of the University of Oxford but is very much an international professor. He came to Oxford after being provost of Yale University, and next year will become president of New York University. Before becoming Yale’s provost, he was a professor of chemistry there, a professor at Pittsburgh and an assistant professor at Princeton. He earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from universities in Exeter, British Columbia and Cambridge, and did post-doctoral work in France.

Oxford crucially differs from Japanese universities in its international outlook. Hamilton notes that 40 percent of Oxford’s professors come from outside the United Kingdom. “We carry out global searches for every major academic post, blind to where the individuals come from.” Oxford is probably the most international university in the world, with 29 percent of all its students and 58 percent of its graduate students coming from outside the U.K. At Todai, non-Japanese faculty members are 6 percent, non-Japanese students 8 percent, and non-Japanese graduate students 14 percent.

Equally important, Oxford is at the center of what Hamilton calls a “knowledge spine”, embracing scientific and entrepreneurial establishments from Bicester in the north to Harwell and Culham in the south. Other world-class universities, including Cambridge, Stanford and Harvard-MIT, have similar corridors of knowledge.

This multifaceted excellence involves cooperation between the university and the community, including creation of spin-off companies in which the university has a shareholding.

Hamilton jokes that Oxford’s first spin-off occurred more than 800 years ago, in 1209, when some Oxford scholars traveled 100 km east and established the University of Cambridge.

In 2015, Oxford-based startup companies probably raised more than $200 million in venture capital. NaturalMotion is a dynamic example: It was founded by Torsten Reil, a neuroscientist working in Oxford’s zoology department, “trying to do real-time simulations of different creatures that would essentially learn how to walk. I created a simulation of their body and their muscles and of the motor nervous system. We managed to get, essentially, stick figures to walk more or less naturally.”

NaturalMotion supplied the stunt men in films, including “Lord of the Rings,” “Troy” and “10,000 BC.” Then Reil had the bright idea of using the technology real time in video games, and Clumsy Ninja and Grand Auto Theft took the games world by storm. NaturalMotion was bought by Zynga for $527 million, with Oxford University collecting a 10 percent share.

Oxford has a string of other spin-offs. Oxbotica, created from the Mobile Robotics Group at Oxford’s engineering science department, developed technology behind the LUTZ Pathfinder driverless pods now finding their way round the streets of Milton Keynes without using satellite navigation. It is also pioneering the Oxford Robot Car based on a modified Nissan Leaf electric car given by the Japanese carmaker.

In creation of start-ups and spin-offs Oxford and other Western universities are way ahead of Japan. Colleagues at Osaka University grumbled about bureaucrats blocking them from a start-up with university participation. “No imagination: all they care about is rules, and if it is new and they can’t find a rule, they’ll say ‘No’, ” said one scientist. If Japan is serious about having internationally revered universities, professors have to regain control. Bureaucrats contribute no research, no teaching, no addition to human knowledge or enlightenment.

Hamilton insists on continuing his chemistry research even as vice chancellor. He says emphatically: “I have never left chemistry. I am a professor of chemistry in Oxford, and I will be a professor of chemistry in New York. I have continued my research in Oxford, and I will continue my research at NYU. Doing research helps me to do my job as vice chancellor, for two reasons. It allows me to look academics in the eye and say, ‘I am one of you, don’t give me that BS.’ And the other is that it keeps me sane because being in a university administration is surreal.”

One of the tests facing Gonokami is whether he can continue potentially path-breaking research into lasers while being Todai’s president. The precedents are not optimistic. A former university vice president said: “University executive office in Japan is endless meetings; it eats you up.”

Hamilton is protective of a university’s need to do research untrammeled by government or corporate pressure for immediate results. He asserts, “At Oxford, we reserve the right to investigate subjects of no practical use whatsoever.” He recalls that two members of the Oxford English faculty in the 1920s talked late into the night about their shared love of Norse mythology. A waste of time, you might say, but JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis wrote a series of books with haunting creatures that inspired film franchises grossing more than $6.5 billion.

A university should be a place for constant exploration. Hamilton notes, “Oxford, and Cambridge too, thrive on kind of wild debate and that is a wonderful thing.” Debate and the clash of ideas, and sometimes personalities, add to the richness of human knowledge, and may lead to unexpected discoveries that sometimes have practical use.

Japanese universities make the mistake of over-reliance on government funding, stingy by international standards. Over the past decade, Oxford’s income has increased by nearly 7 percent a year and research income by almost 9 percent, with $750 million last year for research, from companies, charities and government. The Oxford Thinking fund-raising campaign raised £2 billion in 10 years, in small and large sums from alumni and other benefactors.

Japan’s universities at best are national, beholden to government in too many ways. The poor quality of English, the international language, leads some academics to declare that Japanese universities should not waste time competing internationally but should look at fostering good regional relations.

This would be a dangerous counsel of despair. Japan’s biggest neighbor is China, where the ruling Communist Party has a very different view of the role of universities, seeing them as teaching machines that preach the party line. This is a distorted version of Confucianism, since even Confucius taught that it is right to stand against tyranny.

For Hamilton a good university is not bound by its physical or national origin and should have a commitment to knowledge and truth. Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, MIT have burst beyond national boundaries to become international and global. Leszek Borysiewitz, Cambridge’s vice chancellor, declared that his university’s task was “to serve the most important partnership of all, society itself, and by society I mean the whole of mankind.”
Kevin Rafferty is a journalist and commentator, and quondam professor at Osaka University.