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Can Japanese
universities really
become Super Global?


by: Jeremy Rappleye and Edward Vickers

06 November 2015

Issue No:390

This year marks the launch of the most ambitious attempt to change Japanese universities since World War II: the Super Global Universities programme. From this April, 37 of Japan’s leading universities – selected by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, or MEXT, last year – began to try to redefine Japanese higher education for a new global era.

But what does Japan stand to gain from this massive reform? What would it take to be successful? What possibilities and problems await? And – depending on its outcome – what might Japanese universities look like a decade from now?

Supporters of the reform envisage universities as newly ‘global spaces’ where the best Japanese intellects and ‘outstanding’ scholars and students from overseas will collaborate to advance the frontiers of knowledge. ‘Super global’ universities will generate the technology needed for a long overdue renaissance in Japanese economic might.

New college graduates – both foreign and Japanese – will provide the ‘global manpower’ crucial for success in a fiercely competitive global market. They will be fluent English speakers, confident communicators and outward-looking representatives of a Japan resurgent on the global stage.

This, anyway, is the idyllic vision promoted by national policy-makers. Worryingly, however, murmurs of dissent are distinctly audible inside leading universities – the very institutions that are supposed to lead this transformation. Why?


One major reason is that Japanese faculty fear a doubling of their already heavy workload as a result of the current reforms. Previous internationalisation programmes, such as ‘Global 30’, have required them to teach extra classes, in English, to foreign students who know little about Japan. Many also secretly doubt the potential for meaningful exchange. Teaching foreign students and hosting visiting scholars keen to experience ‘exotic’ Japan are time-consuming distractions from their core research interests.

And senior faculty recall repeated waves of ‘internationalisation’ since the 1980s that have led to little substantive improvement. Previous experience leads many to suppose that this time, too, the tide of ‘internationalisation’ will once again ebb away, leaving the academic environment fundamentally unchanged.

But this time the world will not go away. Since the 1980s, a truly global ‘market’ in academic talent has emerged. Internationalisation is no longer about introducing ‘Japan as Number One’ to an awestruck world, but about survival in a complex and challenging global economic and political order.

Places like Singapore and the Gulf states have in recent years sought to rival American dominance through massive investment in higher education. And today China and traditional European centres such as Germany are quickly closing in. University curricula are being overhauled, state-of-the-art research facilities installed, and leading international scholars enticed to aspiring institutions.

If the world stays away from Japan, so do all of these things. So far, however, signs of fundamental change are hard to detect on Japanese campuses.

Will international scholars come to Japan?

Let's look at the issue of internationalising the faculty.

The issue of hiring overseas faculty provides one vantage point from which we can survey the issues at stake. Following Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic strategy speech in June 2013, the Super Global Universities programme calls for the hiring of ‘1,500 leading researchers from around the world’.

In taking the money from MEXT, universities have committed themselves to at least tripling their tally of foreign professors. Kyoto University, for example, has pledged to hire 100 foreign faculty members within 10 years; other institutions have declared similar targets.

This means that space must be opened for ‘outsiders’ – either foreign nationals or Japanese with overseas experience. These scholars will inevitably differ in their assumptions, interests and overall worldview from their Japan-trained colleagues. Indeed, this is precisely what makes them so valuable.

Yet if the record of ‘Global 30’ is any guide, these ‘outsiders’ will remain just that – confined to the institutional periphery, largely excluded from a say in overall university governance. Leading universities are currently failing to capitalise on their existing resources of ‘international’ talent or experience.

Last summer, in preparation for the final ‘Super Global’ application to MEXT, one university held a series of strategy meetings. Of around 70 professors and administrators participating, only one was foreign – and he was representing a Japanese colleague unable to attend.

Arguably the success of the entire reform rests on this point: the readiness of Japanese faculty to give those who are genuinely ‘international’ the opportunity to lead internationalisation. Foreign faculty or overseas-trained Japanese can teach classes in English, write new curricula and bring links to extensive international networks. They are the bridge to the outside world.

But not only that: outsiders also make visible a whole range of issues and obstacles that are largely invisible to Japan-trained scholars at the institutional core. Without their presence, ‘internationalisation’ will involve naïve efforts at copying little-understood institutions such as Harvard and Oxford universities, rather than trying to find ways to make global higher education work in the Japanese context.

But will foreign faculty even come? Although salaries at Japanese universities are not bad by international standards, bringing leading foreign researchers to Japan requires far more.

Learning Japanese, adapting to a new environment, and developing new scholarly networks all take years of commitment. We both know this from personal experience. But we started out with a profound interest in, or family ties to, this country. How will world-leading scholars in various fields, without such a background, be persuaded to make their careers here?

Changing the rules

To attract such individuals, much of the broader institutional environment must be remade. Rules must become more flexible, and administration conducted in English as well as Japanese.

And what of the often considerable costs of relocation to Japan – international schools, home country pension replacement payments, flights to visit ageing parents back home? Or the challenges faced by spouses?

Many spouses, professionally successful overseas, may be unable to find suitable employment in Japan given barriers of language, gender and so forth. In short, Japanese salaries alone may attract fresh PhDs and those from developing countries, but not leading global researchers already established in their careers.

This is precisely why other countries in the region – most notably China – have set up extensive, well-paid, government-backed bonus schemes to help universities hire ‘foreign talent’.

In addition to matching salaries at their home institution, some of these ‘foreign talent’ schemes guarantee overseas recruits between JPY48 million (US$395,000) and JPY80 million (US$658,000) in research funding and a whopping JPY16 million (US$132,000) ‘lump sum’ signing bonus to cover the costs of relocation and living abroad.

Many talented academics are now moving to China as a result, despite issues with quality of life, low university rankings and restrictions on information. This is how competitive the global higher education ‘market’ has become.

So should Japan follow the Chinese route? We doubt it. Well-paid foreign scholars in China remain peripheral to the governance of their universities. For internationalisation to really succeed, overseas scholars need to be fully integrated. Glaringly differential treatment of foreigners and Japanese will prevent this.

Universities should take account of the special difficulties that foreign scholars face in relocating to Japan. But basic pay and conditions for local and overseas hires should be equitable, if not completely uniform.

The problem here, however, is that pay and conditions for Japanese academics have been on a steady slide over the past 15 years. In this context, the challenge for top Japanese universities is not just one of attracting more ‘global talent’, but of holding on to what they already have. So far, there has been no indication that the ‘Super Global’ initiative will address this crucial issue.

Indeed, those closely involved with the current reforms will quietly tell you how few high-quality applications they are receiving for new ‘international’ positions. In this sense, Japan is getting exactly what it pays for.

Believing that talented overseas researchers will flock to Japan is a quaint fantasy, albeit one that dominates thinking at the core of the educational and policy-making establishment. But for most in the world beyond Japan, this country is no longer a global player, but an ageing society in steady decline, stuck on the margins of the international scholarly community. This perception needs to be overcome.

Looking ahead: April 2025

Three possible scenarios for April 2025 seem plausible.

The first is successful internationalisation. Improved conditions for all scholars at ‘Super Global’ institutions make it possible to attract and retain top researchers – both foreign and Japanese – while fully integrating foreigners into the life of their institutions.

Working closely with Japanese colleagues – themselves given far greater opportunities to be internationally active – researchers with overseas experience help design the reforms needed for Japanese universities to engage effectively with the outside world.

Talented foreign students come to Japan, attracted by high quality courses offered by recognised names in their respective fields. Japan outflanks aggressive moves by Singapore, the Gulf states and China through a combination of financial incentives, its already strong research base and a superior quality of life.

As a result, newly international universities face Japanese youth outward toward a global tomorrow and become engines for Japanese economic and social renewal. This is the great potential of this moment.

The second scenario is outright policy failure. Universities absorb a massive influx of ministry funds while resisting substantive reforms. As already seen in one ‘Super Global’ university, faculty councils, fearful of the disruptive consequences, will quietly shelve their ambitious plans to hire more foreign faculty. The money earmarked for such purposes is redirected towards existing institutional priorities through skilful writing that satisfies bureaucrats at MEXT. A few international programmes survive, mostly taught by foreign faculty – but many wither away.

And so the most ambitious attempt to change Japanese universities since World War II will die a slow death, its decay masked by glossy brochures purporting to depict shiny new ‘global’ campuses.

A third scenario is the ‘Dejima option’. Unfortunately, based on our 10 years of combined experience at four of Japan’s leading national universities, this one looks the most likely. Like the Dutch on their artificial island in Nagasaki Bay during the Edo period, foreigners will be present, but largely quarantined from Japanese academic life.

They will teach the English courses, write curricula, handle overseas recruitment and exchanges and so on. Together with the foreign exchange students, they will live in a peripheral world virtually sealed off from the core of the institution. They will be unlikely to learn Japanese, contribute much to university reform or leave Japan with positive impressions. They will live in Japan, but the world they inhabit will not be Japanese.

The global and Japanese spaces will remain distinct; no substantive mutual learning will take place and little innovation will result. The status quo at the core of the university will persist as it has since the 1980s, failing to contribute to the renewal of Japanese society. Knowing all this, most leading foreign scholars will stay away.

The fate of university internationalisation will be a key factor in determining whether Japanese society as a whole heads for a first-tier renewal or a third-tier downgrade over the next decade.

When today’s elementary schools' students attend their university entrance ceremonies in 2025, what sorts of institutions will they be entering? The answer to that question might hold the key to the future of Japanese society as a whole.

Jeremy Rappleye is associate professor of the philosophy of education in the education department of Kyoto University, Japan. Edward Vickers is associate professor of comparative education in the education department of Kyushu University, Japan. This is an excerpt of an article that appeared, in Japanese, in the July 2015 issue of the periodical 'Chuo Koron'.

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