Last fall, I was selected as president of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University by a committee open to public applications and nominations — perhaps the first such recruitment among Japan’s private universities.

There are three reasons I decided to take the job. First, APU is like a “Young United Nations.” Of some 6,000 students at the university, most of them are undergraduates and 51.4 percent are from 89 countries and regions outside Japan. No other educational environment in Japan is blessed with such diversity. Incidentally, about half the university’s teachers are foreign nationals.

Second, the university offers classes in both Japanese and English, which I think is uncommon in Japan and rare worldwide. After international students join the university, they acquire at minimum an intermediate level of Japanese by graduation. APU students will become familiar with at least two languages, and many will graduate speaking three or more.

Finally, I was impressed with the APU2030 Vision. Its aim is magnificent: Those who have studied at APU will spread across the world, find their places and missions, act on what they learned at the university and change the world for the better.

These three things prompted me to take on a new challenge in the world of education, switching from my previous field in business. I have since been thinking about university education and considering what an ideal university should be. Here are some of my thoughts about university education.

In the first place, what is a university? History has led me to the three principles of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, one of the world’s oldest universities. The principles can be paraphrased as: (1) Students can come to the university when they want to study and take only the classes that interest them, (2) students can graduate at any time if they think they have studied sufficiently, and (3) students can come back to the university whenever they encounter new questions. These principles unequivocally embody the essence of university education. It was surprising to me that the importance of continuing education was already recognized in the 10th century. Both Al-Azhar University and Paris University, which was the highest seat of education in medieval Europe, accepted students from the world over. This shows that universities were global institutions from the beginning and that the gates of a university must always be open to the world.

But to maintain a university that is open like this costs money. In the Islamic world, merchants with their financial contributions served as patrons of universities. In the Christian world, churches, kings and aristocrats filled this role. In Japan, whose modernization process began 150 years ago with the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the government took on the role of supporting universities. Why? Government leaders probably thought that universities would serve as a leading indicator of Japan’s future. In other words, they thought that nurturing excellent youths would result in producing people who would play leading roles in the modernization of Japan. This can be taken to mean that Japan followed the model of the University of Naples, which was founded in the 13th century by Frederick II of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, a wise emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

It is becoming difficult, however, for the Japanese government to adequately support universities as its fiscal conditions tighten. Today, the United States and China are believed to lead the world in the field of fundamental research for state-of-the-art technologies, and questions are often raised about the academic and research levels of Japanese universities. The ratio of education spending in the Japanese national budget is the lowest among OECD members. This fact cannot be ignored.

Establishing a solid financial foundation is a challenge that universities cannot avoid.

In Japan, there is an opinion that universities should put more emphasis on vocational education than on research. Such a view has a valid point, but what will really be useful in an uncertain future, with the spread of artificial intelligence, growing tensions between nations and the rise of global enterprise? I think it is the ability to question all preconceived notions in society, think independently, and put together and present your own ideas in your own words. A university is a place for students to cultivate the power to think.

When the factory model of the manufacturing industry drove society, it made sense to nurture workers who were obedient and excelled at cooperation. To use an extreme argument, uniform education was suitable for the requirement of the age. But the manufacturing industry now accounts for less than a quarter of Japan’s gross domestic product. It is the nonmanufacturing sectors such as the service industry that will be the prime mover of future society. What is required in those sectors, above all else, are creative and unique ideas. The point is that education from now on must produce people of distinctive talent like Steve Jobs.

Schools that cultivate individuals with unique perspectives and the ability to think critically may not be considered useful in the real world of today or the immediate future. But this view is wrong. The world’s most competitive universities are probably American institutions. More than 1 million international students study at American universities. Their tuition fees and the cost of living in the U.S. are very high. Supposing one international student spends ¥10 million a year in the U.S., a million students will generate ¥10 trillion a year in consumption. Having competitive universities is equivalent to having competitive export industries. There are large numbers of startup businesses in the U.S., and it is said that foreign students are involved in about half of them. American universities put priority on producing people with original perspectives and the ability to think.

What should be done to produce such individuals? What steps should be taken to strengthen the university’s financial foundations? What is needed to beef up the institution’s international competitiveness? These are the challenges that I hope to tackle every day as president of APU.

Haruaki Deguchi is president of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu, Oita Prefecture. A popular lecturer and author of more than 30 books, Deguchi worked at Nippon Life Insurance Co. for almost 35 years before founding Lifenet Insurance in 2008.

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