Universities’ failing grades

by Kevin Rafferty

Special To The Japan Times

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has set an ambitious target of Japan getting at least 10 universities in the world’s top 100 within 10 years. The government promised millions of dollars for selected institutions, to create not just international universities, but “Super Global Universities.” One president of a major university declared that he wanted to see his university in the top 10 by 2020.

Sadly, Japan’s universities are failing their international exams, falling precipitously in the global league standings, lagging behind China, Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore. A new approach and radical reforms are necessary if the government is not to waste taxpayers’ money and Japan to fail its people. Is anyone in the university classroom paying attention?

New world university rankings from The Times High Education, suitably THE, make for depressing reading for anyone who cares about Japan. Only two Japanese universities are in the top 100, the University of Tokyo, which languishes in 39th place, and Kyoto University in 91st. The next Japanese university is Tohoku, ranked in the 201-250 segment, followed by Osaka University and the Tokyo Institute of Technology, both in the 251-300 ranking. After 200th place, universities are listed in batches of 50 until 400, when they come in groups of 100, until 600, when 200 are lumped together.

Other renowned Japanese institutions are toward the bottom of the class, with Nagoya University in 301-350, Kyushu University 351-400 and Hokkaido University 401-500. It’s even more depressing for renowned private universities, such as Keio, Kindai (formerly Kinki) and Waseda, at 601-800, and Doshisha, Hosei, Kansai, Kwansei Gakuin, Meiji, Ritsumeikan and Sophia, all ranked at 801 or lower. If Abe is serious about making Japan’s universities more international, there should be mass seppuku by university presidents over these results.

Former colleagues at Osaka University argue that THE and other international rankings are flawed because they do not consider Japanese scholarship written in the vernacular. This reminds me of Antoine de St. Exupery’s “Le Petit Prince,” where a Turkish astronomer discovered the prince’s Asteroid B-612 in 1909, but no one believed him because he was wearing traditional Turkish dress — until 1920 when he made the same announcement wearing a smart Western suit, and everyone believed him.

There are weaknesses in this argument. It’s a tough world, and these are international rankings, where Abe and his colleagues boasted that the Japanese would compete and win. But they have not.

Todai (University of Tokyo) was 23rd in the 2014 rankings but fell to 43rd, from which it has recovered slightly. The biggest faller is Osaka University, 119th in 2011, but 144th in 2013, 157th in 2014 and 201-250 last year. Such a sharp drop suggests that something is badly wrong with the school.

Especially worrying for Japan, other Asian universities are showing competitive mettle and climbing. China has four universities in THE’s top 200, Peking at 29th, Tsinghua at 35th, the University of Science and Technology tied for 153th and Fudan at 155the, with three others ranked from 201 to 250. Hong Kong has five universities in the top 200, while South Korea has four. Tiny Singapore, with only 5.4 million people, has the National University of Singapore (NUS) at 24th and Nanyang Technological University at 54th.

Shame on Japan, especially politicians, bureaucrats and university administrators, for talking fine words and doing little to nothing to encourage universities to move into a global 21st century.

A breakdown of the scores reveals where and how badly Japanese universities fail. Oxford, the world’s No. 1 university, scores 94.5 in “international outlook” and most U.K. universities are in the high 80s. American universities typically are 60-plus. NUS scores 96 and Peking 50. But Todai gets 30.6, Kyodai (Kyoto University) 28, Tohoku 32.4 and Osaka 28.8.

Potential remedies are available, but many conflict with ingrained Japanese practices. Take Todai, where Makoto Gonokami took over as president in April 2015. He is a bright man, a distinguished scientist doing trailblazing research into lasers, who has good ideas for taking the university forward. But he seems to have become a prisoner of the bureaucracy.

He waited six months before publishing his “Vision 2020” — oh no, not again — which in its English version is a disaster, mere bureaucratic gobbledygook. An academic who studied both the Japanese and English versions of his vision commented: “In English, the bureaucrats have killed the power of Gonokami’s plans; they really need help in understanding the world outside Japan.”

One sentence illustrates the wretched English of his translators: “While the University of Tokyo is comprised of three main campuses (in Hongo, Komaba and Kashiwa), the Shirokanedai Campus, and other properties such as facilities and University forests in various places that are concretely rooted in physical space, the University also has extended its sphere of activities to cyberspace thanks to the rapid progress of information and communication technology.”

Here are a few ideas for sharpening Japanese universities:

Open chief executive jobs to competition to choose the best candidate. Cambridge has just announced its new vice chancellor will come from Toronto. Oxford’s present and previous vice chancellors had no connection with the university before becoming CEO, and Harvard’s Drew Faust has no Harvard undergraduate or graduate degrees. It would be too much to expect a non-Japanese because of language issues, but how about a Japanese academic who has won an international reputation, or someone who has run a complex company with international operations?

Break the grip of the bureaucracy. Academics and the quality of teaching and research should be the driving force, whereas Japanese universities are hidebound by petty rules and overstuffed with bureaucrats. The institution I was in at Osaka University had 23 “support staff” for 10 academics. The World Bank’s international department had six support staff for 60 professionals.

Broaden the funding of Japanese universities to avoid overreliance on government. Why should Todai, Kyodai and Osaka have an education ministry bureaucrat among their elite executive vice presidents? Give tax concessions to encourage industry and alumni to contribute proudly.

Pay professors properly. Why should all professors at national universities be paid just under ¥11 million? Depending on the exchange rate, that’s less than a London Underground train driver earns fresh from initial training.

Embrace and promote women with their different, often richer, perspective. CEOs at Harvard, Oxford, Imperial College London, Manchester, Pennsylvania and several other U.S. universities are women. Gonokami has seven executive vice presidents, all men, Osaka has one woman, who had previously retired, among eight executive vice presidents. Kyodai has one woman among seven executive vice presidents.

Bring in more foreigners, both as academics and students, and make them welcome. Almost 50 percent of Oxford academics are from outside the United Kingdom, whereas 4 percent of Japanese academics are foreign. From personal experience it is tough if you are a foreigner, especially if you are trying to promote a new idea through the bureaucratic blancmange.

Encourage vibrant university communities of academics, students, alumni and donors. Create staff common rooms and student unions where university members can gather and exchange ideas early to late, not the shabby co-op cafes as at Osaka, which close at 6 p.m.

When I visit Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard or MIT, I immediately feel the buzz of a community and center of learning where I may learn something stimulating any moment. Why should Japan be different? The dead hand of Japan Inc. — male-dominated, bureaucracy-ridden, government-reliant — must be prized open to let Japanese hopes and dreams flourish.

Kevin Rafferty, a journalist and former World Bank official, was a professor at the Institute for Academic Initiatives at Osaka University.