03 February 2008

Japan aims for 'world class' universities

Japan aims for 'world class' universities
by Charles Jannuzi


The government of Japan is pushing for a consolidation and revitalization of the university system, formulating specific targets. Of the hundreds of universities here, 30 are supposed to emerge competitively as truly 'world-class' institutions. From amongst this group of 30, a very select group of five are supposed to attain a top 30 global ranking. And at the top of this super group of five, one of these must make it into the global top 10.

The elite among the masses

Japan has a total of over 1250 universities, junior colleges, and technical colleges. This higher education sector is only exceeded in size and scope in the developed world by the US system (although developing China is gaining fast on both). In terms of its impact on society and the workplace, the system is unsurpassed in the non-Anglophone world. However, despite the enormous size, this system can only boast of one university in the top 20 of major global rankings--University of Tokyo or 'Toudai' for short.

Toudai is joined on an expanded list of the top 100 by only a handful of universities, such as the University of Kyoto, the University of Osaka, the University of Tohoku, and the Tokyo Institute of Technology. All but one of these dominant institutions have their roots in the former imperial university system of the pre-war period, and all are former national universities in the post-war period, with denationalization taking effect in spring 2004.

The population of high school graduates has declined drastically since the mid-1990s. Because of the decline, advisers to the government have said that a drastic reduction in the number of institutions is necessary. For example, some have said that the number of four-year universities ought to be halved by 2020 through consolidations, mergers and campus closures.

Thirty makes a nice round figure

Along with the goal to consolidate and eliminate over-capacity in the higher education sector, the government has pushed for a thorough revitalization of the university system. It has formulated specific targets to indicate how success will be measured. Of the hundreds of universities, 30 are supposed to emerge competitively as truly 'world-class' institutions. From amongst this group of 30, a very select group of five are supposed to attain a top 30 global ranking. And at the top of this super group of five, one of these must make it into the global top 10.

Reformers are pushing for a down-sized system that can compete globally in terms of (1) taught programs beyond the undergraduate level, (2) quantity and quality of basic and applied research, and (3) independence and diversity in financial resources, such as endowments and investment trusts. These ambitious goals far from being realized system wide, though a well-positioned core of around 50 universities and institutes has emerged as historically and geographically set to flourish in the newly liberalized, competitive environment.

If five universities in Japan could get into the top 30 of major global rankings in the very near future, the most likely candidates would have to be the following: University of Tokyo, University of Kyoto, University of Osaka, University of Tohoku, Tokyo Institute of Technology, and possibly the University of Tsukuba. It is no coincidence that four are former imperial universities, and all are former national universities.

What factors are vital to universities in Japan if they hope to get into or stay in the domestic top 30 of 'world-class' institutions? Here is what to look for when trying to determine their chances. The contenders (whether former national, public, or private) must have all of the following:

--a college of science, engineering and technology,
--graduate schools to the doctoral level,
--a college of medicine or pharmacology,
--at least one subsidized, government-designated' Centre of Excellence',
--a subsidized, government-designated 'Venture Business Laboratory',
--a subsidized, government-designated 'International Headquarters'.

Centres of Excellence

The national government has tried hard to help institutions attain world-class status. For example, there is the nationwide establishment of research-oriented 'Centres of Excellence' (COEs), mostly at the former national universities and a few elite private ones. Any university or institute that hoped for future top-30 ranking might have helped its case by winning the right to host one or more of the COEs.

The COEs now in place across the nation are supposed to focus their activities on doctoral and post-doctoral research and scholarship. Their impact in improving universities may take longer than the government hopes. Capable researchers already at work in the relative safety of existing 'laboratories' (co-operating research and teaching groups) have been reluctant to join the new centres. In part, this is because the COEs have no long record of results and often lack a 'sempai' (older mentor) for a younger researcher to work under. Meanwhile, post-doctoral researchers from abroad with only survival level Japanese, such as those on EU stipends, have found many of the centers unable to function with English as a common language for communication.

To encourage further competition amongst elite institutions for research money, in fiscal year 2007 the Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) also established a new program, the 'World Premier International Research Center Initiative' (WPI). So far, only the most predictable former national universities going back to the old imperial system (and some national research laboratories) have been rewarded; namely, Tokyo University, Kyoto University, Tohoku University and Osaka University.

Venture Business Laboratories

Only universities and institutes that can conduct research and scholarship at the doctoral and post-doctoral levels can host a COE. So universities of all types are now trying a more bottom-up strategy to raise funds and earn sustainable income: venture businesses (VBs).

By 2004 close to a thousand VBs (most at research institutes and universities) were in operation, with a record 179 created in 2003 alone. Clusters of VBs have sprung up in the urban areas, such as Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka. Unwilling to leave things to geographic chance, the national government has also funded 45 'venture business laboratories' (VBLs) nationwide, with many at regional second- and third-tier universities and institutes with faculties of science and technology.

Under the auspices of the VBLs, many of the VBs are joint ventures between a university and a group of investors or a company. Up until recently co-operation between universities and private enterprise usually put a top university in Japan into a tie-up with a top company in Japan. However, the climate of university reform in Japan has not gone unnoticed abroad. Most notably, in mid-2005, the US software giant, Microsoft, announced it would set up and finance a 'collaboration network', signing up a group of top universities and academics for joint research in IT as well as other areas of science. This adds a significant presence of Japanese universities in Microsoft's multi-billion dollar efforts to do overseas research.

Raising international profiles

One aspect a university being able to call itself 'world-class university' is whether or not its activities have an international profile. Japan's university system and its approach to academic endeavors outside of science and technology are often seen as insular and peculiarly Japanese.

In 2005 in order to promote 'internationalization' and 'globalization', the Japanese government created a fund to aid universities in setting up 'international headquarters'. Up until now, international exchange has most often meant Japanese institutions sponsoring and hosting scholars and scientists from overseas. Japanese universities had very little presence overseas.

Sixty-eight universities, both public and private, applied for the funds and an elite 20 were selected. This list of 20 deemed ready for exchange and research abroad is also representative of the very same universities that aspire for world-class status and global ranking.

As completely expected, at the top of the list of the 20 chosen for sanction and subsidy to expand overseas is University of Tokyo. Toudai, the 'Harvard of the East', was quick to sign a deal with a top university in the US--not Harvard, but rather its Ivy League rival, Yale. On November 2 last year, the two universities officially began the 'Initiative for Japanese Studies' as part of a much broader agreement for collaboration and exchange.

Venture Business Laboratory (VBL) on Univ. of Fukui NUC campus.

New high rise building that houses Univ. of Fukui's Center of Excellence


RJO said...

Real intellectual quality will always begin with the quality of the undergraduate program. The best universities in the world accomplish this through residential college systems:


The National University of Singapore is moving in this direction as is the Chinese University of Hong Kong, but no Japanese universities are following, to my knowledge.

CEJ said...

The traditional way of running the national universities was 'collegial'. The movement is away from this type of management, for better or worse.

From my experiences at teaching in one of the colleges, I would say it didn't work too well here in Japan in terms of guaranteeing quality. Too much rivalry across departments; too little coordination. This also resulted in a lot of redundancy in the courses being offered. Which then led to inflexibility in the face of the need to create new courses of study and new curriculum.

Thanks for your comments.

Jack said...

What happened to this Global 30 idea? It seems to have quietly disappeared.

Charles Jannuzi said...

A lot of universities have web pages in English about their 'Global 30' project, going ahead with them with the hopes of receiving money (or more money). I think like all these government-funded initiatives, the money is limited and it is running out. Even if something gets funded for its first 5 years, it has a hard time getting funded after that.

This is one of the English web pages explaining it. Like so many such programs, the money--and the students--end up in the hands of a handful of top-ranked quasi-national universities and already rich private universities.

Charles Jannuzi said...


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