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Japan’s universities

need more

global ties

By Nancy Snow for The Japan Times

Japanese universities are becoming regionally more powerful, but they still have a long path ahead to rank among the top universities in the world. What they need is the support of elite, exchange, informational and city diplomacy to appeal to the world’s best and brightest.

In 2015, universities in China outranked Japan for the first time, five years after China overtook Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. The signature focus for Japan in the second decade of the 21st century has been globalization, including how to internationalize college and university campuses. But the tactics have been piecemeal, anything but broad-minded or strategic. And there aren’t enough Japanese students in love with their passports.



According to Open Doors 2017, China accounts for 10 times the number of Japanese students in the United States. Japanese student numbers in the U.S. dropped by 2.6 percent from the 2015-2016 academic year to 2016-2017. Japan makes up just 3 percent of the total while two countries, India and China, combine for 40 percent.

Alternatively, Japan is playing host to over 267,000 international students, with China (107,260), Vietnam (61,671), Nepal (21,500) and South Korea (15,740) representing about 85 percent of the total. This puts the government of Japan’s target of hosting 300,000 international students by 2020 within reach. So far, so good.

The balance of power between Japan and the top universities in the Asian region has shifted in Japan’s favor with 89 institutions of higher education making the ranks of the 350 top universities in the Times Higher Education Asia University Rankings 2018. That’s even better news.

The bad news is that most of these regionally ranked institutions of higher learning are not competing globally. Global rankings of the best universities consider factors like star faculty, high numbers of citations in peer-reviewed English-dominant international journals and participation in international conferences. How many Japanese, much less international faculty, get release time to work on journal articles or attend overseas engagements? The university system is set up to keep professors tied to the classroom with heavy teaching loads.

China remains the educational exchange lodestar, not Japan. China increased the number of foreign students it hosts from 85,000 in 2002 to 442,000 in 2016, a growth rate of 420 percent.

These international students serve as cultural mediators and ambassadors when they return to their home campuses and hometowns with stories about China, helping to expand its national brand around the world.

Tsinghua University, where I affiliate as a guest lecturer and visiting professor, is ranked the No. 1 university in Asia. What helps top universities like Tsinghua shine is the level of public-private investment. Tsinghua is home to the Schwarzman Scholars and Schwarzman College, China’s version of the Rhodes Scholarship, “to educate the next generation of global leaders.” The $600 million Schwarzman Scholars campaign is the single largest philanthropic initiative undertaken in China with international donors. Its board of advisers is heavy on diplomacy, boasting three former U.S. secretaries of state: Henry Kissinger, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell.

China and Hong Kong have five of the top 10 institutions in Asia. Instead of seeing this as a regional threat, take it as a challenge. Japan should expand an investment model in higher education that allows faculty and staff to take more initiative and risks.

Japan has a history of studying what other countries do and making it work for the Japanese and the world. It needs the same enthusiasm for global higher education that industry pioneers like Panasonic’s Konosuke Matsushita and Sony’s Akio Morita had for transforming the “Made in Japan” label from postwar kitsch to high-quality excellence.

The Chinese government invested intensely in Peking and Tsinghua universities. These two, often referred to as the Harvard and MIT of China, have expanded their higher institution brand well beyond the geographic boundaries of China.

Japan’s elite universities are known for their investment in research, but the higher education system at large suffers internationally for having an overall brand image that downplays critical and creative thinking.

China understands national brand management across the entire political economy, and to that end focuses on person-to-person engagement and exchange diplomacy. According to a report out of the College of William & Mary titled “Ties that Bind: Quantifying China’s Public Diplomacy and Its ‘Good Neighbor’ Effect,” China leads the world in elite-to-elite diplomacy. China entertains more visiting dignitaries and its faculty and students travel more globally, all with an emphasis on building closer ties — China to the world and the world to China. China’s sister-city ties have expanded 115 percent since 2000, with 950 sister cities in the Asia-Pacific region, including 337 in Japan.

China has also doubled down on informational diplomacy. NHK, which desires to expand its international and regional reputation, can’t compete with China’s state-owned media companies. Just as Xi Jinping was elected to a second term, China announced the merger of China Central Television (CCTV), China Radio International and China National Radio under a single network, Voice of China, whose purpose includes strengthening international communication and telling good China stories.

Japan has plenty of good stories, yet untold, and if it doesn’t take on internationalization with the spirit of a Marshall Plan, its voice will be a whisper to the global and regional public-diplomacy power of its top trading partner.