The World University Rankings 2018, published by Times Higher Education (THE) in September, shows a continued decline of Japanese universities — with only two of them, the University of Tokyo (43rd) and Kyoto University (74th), ranked among the world’s top 200 institutions. In the 2014 ranking, five Japanese institutions were among the world’s top 200, but just two years later, the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Osaka University and Tohoku University failed to make the cut.

A target proposed to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2013 by the government’s council on resuscitation of education called for having at least 10 Japanese universities among the global top 100 within a decade. But the target now seems out of reach.

Among universities in Asia, the University of Tokyo had long occupied the top position except in 2010 when it was overtaken by the University of Hong Kong. But it fell to third place in 2016 behind the National University of Singapore and Peking University, and has now dropped to sixth, trailing behind three more schools — Tsinghua University, the University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

THE ranks universities on the basis of weighted average in five categories each with the maximum of 100 points: teaching (30 percent of the total score), research (30 percent), citations (30 percent), international outlook (7.5 percent) and industry income (2.5 percent). Japanese institutions lag behind their overseas counterparts especially in citations. The number of times that papers authored by teachers of a particular university has been cited is regarded as an appropriate measure of the influence or quality of the papers. A low score in this category means that Japanese universities have fewer researchers who publish treatises worthy of being cited by many of their peers in their relevant fields around the world.

The citations scores for the six leading Asian universities are as follows: the National University of Singapore (ranked 22nd worldwide, with citation score of 81.3 points), Peking University (27th, with 74.2), Tsinghua University (30th with 71.4), the University of Hong Kong (40th with 74.2), the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (44th with 93.1), and the University of Tokyo (46th with 63.7.) The total score for the National University of Singapore was 82.8 and that for the University of Tokyo 72.2. Since the citations score accounts for 30 percent of the total, half of the gap between the final scores of the two universities came from their difference in citations.

It should be noted that the scores in citations are given only to papers written in English, and measured on the basis of the number of citations per teacher. While it is common for Japanese university teachers in the field of natural sciences to write their papers in English, a large majority of those in humanities and social sciences write theirs in Japanese and seldom submit them to international academic publications. That is why in this category, Japanese institutions fall far behind not only British and American universities but also those in countries like Singapore and China.

Since THE surveys only treatises that are written in English, it is only natural that British and American schools receive overwhelmingly high scores. In Germany, where writing papers in English is taken for granted, 10 universities ranked among the global top 100. In contrast, only one French university was among the top 100, as there still is a strong tendency in France to write treatises in French.

Many people seem to have a false notion that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology offers curriculums only in natural sciences. In fact it offers a wide variety of courses in humanities and social sciences. In the field of social sciences, economics and humanities, THE ranked MIT second only to Stanford University. Similarly, the London School of Economics and Political Science, which specializes in the humanities and social sciences, placed 25th overall.

The California Institute of Technology, which had topped THE’s list for five consecutive years through 2016, was surpassed in the 2017 ranking by the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge. That was presumably because beginning with the 2017 list, not only academic papers but also books published by the researchers have been counted toward the scores, raising the degrees of contributions made by those in the fields of humanities and social sciences.

Providing teachers in humanities and social sciences at Japanese universities with incentives to write books and theses in English would not only be a must for elevating their global standings but also the most cost-effective approach toward the goal. In that sense, the notice given in June 2015 in the name of the education minister calling for either the abolition or transformation of graduate schools in humanities and social sciences was inappropriate.

The recent rapid decline of Japanese universities’s rankings is attributable to major strides made by their counterparts in Singapore, China and South Korea.

There is one other major factor, however. In terms of the national budget earmarked for education as a percentage of gross domestic product, Japan is at the tail end of the list among the 34 OECD member countries. The Japanese government has for many years followed a self-contradictory policy of not increasing funding for education and research while emphasizing their importance. In stark contrast, Japan’s three East Asian neighbors have been rapidly increasing their spending on higher education.

There are in fact three problems with the current THE World University Rankings. First, Japan need not be overly concerned with the outcome of THE’s survey, which reviews only treatises and books written in English, thus giving an overwhelming advantage to schools in English-speaking countries.

Second, while THE places emphasis on education and research, with each given 30 percent of the final score, 18 points of that 30 percent are determined by the public reputation of each institution. This means that the reputation assessments given by third parties of each university’s education and research is the key factor in the university rankings. A large majority of those who assess the reputation factor are Americans and Europeans. With subjective assessment related to reputation accounting for 36 percent of the total score, the objectiveness of THE’s survey may be subject to questions.

Third, in the field of humanities and social sciences, the meaning of “research accomplishments” is not clear. Until two years ago, they were assessed solely on the basis of treatises printed in specialist publications after passing a peer review. Since last year, however, published books have also been reviewed. In many cases, the social influence of researchers in these disciplines becomes apparent more through their books than their academic papers. Even in the field of natural sciences, citations is only one of the many yardsticks to determine the value of the papers. The 30 percent weight given to citations seems excessive.

Takamitsu Sawa is a distinguished professor at Shiga University.

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