Japan feels the pressure of increased competition

Japan’s economy has been surpassed in size by that of China and more recently, by some reports, that of India too. But there are only 127 million Japanese people to share that wealth, while India and China have populations of over a billion. So Japan remains much the most financially comfortable nation in Asia.

This dominance has been established since the 19th century and is reflected in Japanese representation in the 2012 QS University Rankings: Asia. We rank 300 universities, and 73 of them are in Japan.

This happens to be exactly one ahead of China. Korea has 55 of the 300, and no other nation comes near. Japan has seven of the top 20 universities, three more than Hong Kong and four more that China or Korea.

In addition, some Japanese institutions are improving their rankings by comparison with their Asian competitors. Examples include Tokyo Medical and Dental University, up 22 places to 61.

However, the overall impression given by these rankings is that Japan is feeling the pressure exerted by the growing Asian focus on higher education.

This is certainly apparent from the top of the table. Tokyo University, which would have been regarded as Asia’s top institution for most of the 20th century, fell from 4th in this ranking in 2011 to 8th here, two places ahead of its rival Kyoto. Kyoto is down three places, Osaka has fallen from 8 to 11, Tokyo Institute of Technology from 9 to 13, Tohoku from ninth equal to 14, and Nagoya from 14 to 18.

The reasons for Japan’s decline in these rankings are not hard to find. Indeed, they are already the subject of agonised debate within Japan itself.

They are exemplified in the results for Tokyo University. Academics and employers both regard Tokyo as a leading Asian university, giving it a 100 score in our surveys of both groups. In addition, it has an impressive faculty/student ratio, scoring 98.4 on this measure. Its faculty are productive when it comes to research, scoring 97.8 for papers per faculty member and 98.7 for the frequency with which these papers are cited.

On paper production, Tokyo beats every university above it in the ranking by a big margin, with the sole exception of KAIST.

However, Japanese superiority is far less in evidence when it comes to our measures of international achievement. Only 4.5 per cent of Tokyo’s academic staff and 8.3 per cent of its students are from outside Japan. Kyoto has even fewer foreign students and slightly more overseas staff.

By contrast, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, top in these rankings, has a 50 per cent international faculty and gets 36.9 per cent of it students from outside of Hong Kong. Tokyo would come much higher in these rankings if it got close to matching this achievement.

The same pattern is repeated in our two final measures, university performance in attracting and sending international exchange students.  Again, Tokyo and Kyoto emerge as places where international students do not want to go, and whose students would rather stay at home.

Even so, the picture is not completely gloomy. While Keio, one of the big private universities of the Tokyo region, has 5.7 per cent international staff and 3.0 per cent international students, its direct rival Waseda manages 11.5 per cent and 7.5 per cent respectively.

Warning sign

Japanese observers agree that these statistics are a warning sign that should not be ignored. They are struck by the rise in prestige of Chinese universities, and also by the growing status of institutions in Hong Kong and Singapore, small territories with the advantage of widespread English.

In addition, Japan’s international reputation as one of the world’s most innovative economies has been damaged by technological success in Taiwan and Korea, typified by the emergence of HTC and Samsung as powerful competitors for Sony and its ilk.

Japanese universities have accepted that their nation’s unique language, however beguiling, is part of the problem, and are using more English and Chinese in their teaching. This trend will grow. However, students living in Japan will still have to learn enough Japanese for everyday life.

More of an issue is the cost of living in Japan. While the gap between Japanese prices and those in Europe and North America has narrowed, Japan remains an expensive option by Asian standards. The Ministry of Education is looking for ways to bring more international students to Japan, and accepts that this will cost money.

Indeed, there may soon be new reasons for ambitious international students to come to Japan. The March 2011 earthquake did immense damage, but has had the unintended effect of asking uncomfortable questions about Japanese society.

The decision to abandon nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster suggests that Japan’s universities will have to pay more attention to new forms of energy supply.

More fundamentally, there may well be pressure for the top universities to educate the senior managers and politicians of the future in new ways, after the perceived failings of civil servants, ministers and the bureaucrats of the Tokyo Electric Power Company. This may mean new and innovative approaches to teaching.

It remains to be seen whether Japan can succeed in this feat of national reorientation. Its effective and high-quality university system is one reason to think it can, especially its base in well-regarded research.

In addition, future social change in Japan may well make its universities more attractive to foreign students and staff. Japanese society is aging fast and needs to import more skilled people.

More generally, globally mobile students often want to work in the country where they study after they graduate. This is a problem in Japan because of the conservative attitude of major employers to foreigners.

It will be a long time before Japan is as welcoming to foreign graduates of its own universities as the US or Europe are to those of theirs. But an improvement in employer attitudes would increase the attractiveness of Japanese universities.

Representation in Asia's Top 200

QS University Rankings: Asia – Battle of the Big 3

The QS University Rankings – Asia (Results | Methodology) were launched yesterday and have been widely viewed across the region and the world. Hong Kong University of Science & Technology and National University of Singapore take the top two spots but there are three large systems that each have a high number of well placed institutions in the table: Japan, Korea and China.

Studying the rankings trends of these three systems seems to show that Japan remains the leading system in the region but that its lead position is being rapidly eroded while those of China and Korea are in the ascendancy.

Representation in Asia's Top 200

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Japanese universities move towards new era

By Martin Ince, convener of the QS Academic Advisory Board


Japan is a safe, developed country whose culture has global appeal, an international centre for design and style. Just the place that students might flock to from around the world.

Except that they don’t. As Japan’s university profile shows, Japanese universities do well on four of the six criteria we use to compile the World University Rankings, but fare miserably on the other two, attractiveness to international students and faculty.

There are deep-seated reasons for Japan’s inability to attract foreign academics, and indeed foreign labour in general. But universities are now doing something about their low appeal to overseas students. For while there are many reasons for Japan’s lack of allure foreign students, one of the big ones is within the universities’ own control.

It is simply that they start their academic year in April. That means that foreign students wanting to go to a Japanese university face a gap of almost a year before they can get started. And when they leave, they are again out of sync with other nations. While some Japanese universities already offer a limited autumn intake, moves for more radical change are gaining pace.

Now Tokyo University, 25 in the World University Rankings and standard-bearer for the nation’s higher education sector, has taken charge by proposing a move to autumn admissions. Read more

HE News Brief 25.1.11

by Abby Chau

  • Approximately 15,000 protestors descended on the Parliament in Hague to demonstrate against a proposed multi-billion austerity plan, which include plans to slash university budgets and increased fees for some students. A policy aimed at students who take longer to graduate is causing a commotion. Under the new proposal, students who take longer than 4 years to complete their three year undergraduate degrees will have to pay an extra $4,000 per year in fees. Starting from 2012, the government is hoping to save $501 million each year from this initiative.
    Full Story: Businessweek
    More: Edmonton Journal  
  • A survey of over 6,000 students at 62 institutions and 20 junior colleges showed that graduate employment rates in Japan has hit a new low since records began in 1996. 68.8% of Japanese university students found a job before graduation, which represents a 4.3% decline from the previous year. Those graduating in the field of science and engineering had the largest hurdle, with job offers dropping 7.3 percentage to 71.3 %. In response, the Japanese  government has announced new incentives for companies who employ graduates as well as plans for more career fairs.
    Full Story: Japan Today
    More: BBC News
    Read more

HE News Brief 28.9.10

by Abby Chau

Here are this week’s news stories:

  • In 2005, the German government allowed universities to compete for extra funding by proving that they are top-notch in research, strategy, and quality of teaching. The universities that performed the best were designated  with the title of “elite university.” Aachen’s RWTH university for instance, did extremely well and have now seen their stock raised – as a response to this new standing they are offering companies the opportunity to set up research clusters on campus. The move is aimed to foster more collaboration between businesses and higher education. An estimated 10,000 people will be employed because of this initiative.
    Full Story: FT
  • The build-it-and-they-will-come philosophy hasn’t seemed to work when it comes to postgraduates studies in Japan. The number of professional graduate schools have soared since 2003 but students don’t seem to be interested in getting a postgraduate degree. The problem, says Kenichi Yoshida, a consultant at the Japan Research Institute, is that institutions don’t do their market research before initiating postgraduate programmes. In addition, there does not seem to be a system in the workplace which financially awards people like teachers for instance, who have postgraduate degrees. Some say there is also another factor which is the Japanese culture, and its supposed reluctance to single out individuals.
    Full Story: New York Times
    Read more

HE News Brief 13.07.10

by Abby Chau

A gay-friendly university ratings and Abu Dhabi’s ambitious goals for 2018 – here are this week’s news stories:

  • At the Saudi Arabia and Japan: A Dialogue for the Future Seminar held recently in Tokyo, the two nations heralded the need for further educational collaboration. According to the Saudi Ambassador to Japan Abdul Aziz Tukistani, Japan is the second largest trading partner of Saudi. Full Story: Arab News   
  • As a new fiscal year begins in the states,  public colleges are experiencing a tough time as federal stimulus money dries up. Hawaii slashed their educational budget by 26%, and Florida has laid off 21 tenured and 34 tenure-track professors after $82 million was cut from their budget.
    Full Story: USA Today

  • Executive Director of Strategic Affairs Rafic Makki delivered Abu Dhabi’s Higher Education Strategic Plan recently. Under the Economic Vision 2030, the country plans to move away from oil based revenue and develop a research and knowledge-based workforce. The government plans to invest 1 billion dollars to accomplish this Vision with the goal of having two Abu Dhabi universities ranking on a global Top 100 by 2018.
    Full Story: University World News Read more

HE News Brief 12.04.10

by Abby Chau


Several  higher education news stories sparked our interest this week.

  • The Economist gives a succinct overview of university rankings and their supposed value to higher education. An interesting fact from the article: The Netherlands offer a special visa programme for those who have a masters degree from a university that comes up top on two international league tables.
    Full Story: The Economist
  • The AP explains the possible reasons for the steep increase of research papers coming out of China recently. Citing rampant forgery and plagiarism in Chinese research papers and journals, the AP investigates this developing issue.
    Full Story: Associated Press
  • An interesting article on the dramatic decrease of Japanese international students in U.S higher education institutions. South Korea, China, and India are now sending students in record numbers as Japanese ‘grasshoppers’ are increasingly preferring to stay at home.
    Full Story: Washington Post
    More: Chosun llbo
    Read more