Japan should Take a Leadership Role in Globalizing Asian Universities

Faculty Fellow, RIETI

Internationalization of universities as a world trend

A range of measures for education reform have been incorporated into the government's Economic and Fiscal Reform 2007 outline unveiled in June. Among these measures, I would like to focus particularly on the call for the formulation of a Plan for the Globalization of Universities with the aim of improving the international competitiveness of Japanese universities.

Worldwide, the internationalization or globalization of universities is proceeding rapidly. To counter the domination of American universities, the European Union is undertaking a program called the European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students (ERASMUS). ERASMUS promotes student and faculty mobility and collaboration among universities within the region to improve the overall competitiveness of European universities. In addition, under another program called ERASMUS MUNDUS, the EU is also seeking to promote exchanges between higher education institutions in the EU and their counterparts in Asia and other areas outside the EU.

Many prominent universities in the United States are also working to strengthen their internationalization strategies. The world's leading universities, such as Harvard and Yale, are generally seen as fully internationalized. Yet, even these top-flight schools are striving to further improve their international competitiveness by increasing cross-border exchanges of students and researchers.

World rankings as motivator

World rankings of universities, which often come up in conversation at international meetings of university executives, significantly influence these moves toward greater internationalization. The World University Rankings by the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) are the most influential and most closely monitored; presidents of prominent universities react nervously to any telling change in the rankings of their own and rival universities.

In the THES World University Rankings 2006, 11 of the world's top 20 universities and 33 of the top 100 were American, whereas only five European universities were listed among the top 20. In recent years, Chinese universities are notably climbing in the rankings with five universities - including those in Hong Kong - ranked in the top 100. The University of Tokyo ranked highest among Japanese universities at number 19; it falls behind 14th ranked Peking University; the top university in Asia.

Criteria for the THES World University Rankings include the numbers of foreign faculty members and foreign students, with considerable weight placed on the results of peer reviews conducted by international researchers. Thus, international elements are given significant weight. In addition, the mere presence of many foreign students or an international atmosphere on campus is not enough to earn a high ranking; universities need to have sufficient capacity to market their activities to the world.

Strategic globalization is essential

Amid this trend, Japanese universities are lagging significantly behind those of other major countries in developing and implementing global strategies. The number of foreign students studying in Japanese universities continues to increase beyond the government's target of 100,000. Yet, in terms of percentage of total enrollment, foreign students account for less than 10% even at the University of Tokyo and about 5% in other major universities in Japan. The number of Japanese students studying abroad is even smaller, remaining at around 70,000 including those enrolled in language programs abroad.

Of course, simply increasing the numbers of foreign students or exchange programs for researchers is inadequate. What is important is to find ways to secure and foster talented students and researchers, potential leaders in their respective fields. In attracting high quality students amid the growing competition with universities in the U.S., Europe, and other Asian countries, Japanese universities should place special emphasis on students from other Asian countries, whose numbers are continuing to rise. This will improve Japanese universities' international competitiveness.

Specifically, in addition to expanding scholarship programs and securing accommodation for foreign students, it is imperative to improve the quality of education and research programs and to increase the number of programs conducted in English. These measures are important not only as a means to attract a greater number of talented foreign students but also for increasing the satisfaction of foreign students already in Japan.

Each university needs to have clear objectives and a global strategy. First and foremost, a do-assess-adjust cycle of continuous improvement must be established. That is, after drawing up the initial plans needed to achieve its objectives, each university must implement its plans, check and assess the outcome, adjust its plans and objectives, and then repeat the whole process with the adjusted plans in place.

Asian version of the ERASMUS program

As competition for dominance in Asia's higher education system continues to intensify, Asian universities - including those in Australia and other Oceanic countries - should promote the exchange of faculty and students as in the EU's ERASMUS program. Such initiatives, I believe, would eventually boost the international competitiveness of Asian universities as a whole, including those in Japan.

The ERASMUS program was developed in Europe, where both the history and developmental stage of higher education are completely different from Asia. Nevertheless, the program is informative for Asia in its success with promoting exchanges among EU member countries with different university systems and languages, thereby improving the international competitiveness of the EU's entire higher education system. Asia can and should draw on Europe's experience in designing institutional arrangements that will promote the globalization of higher education in Asia.

Specifically, major Asian countries - such as China, South Korea, and Japan - need to work to establish common curricula and standards for awarding degrees, facilitate mutual recognition of academic credits, develop and expand international dual-degree programs, and improve distance education.

Enormous financial and intellectual resources would be needed to create a powerful program comparable to ERASMUS. Thus, while each Asian university will need to exert itself in its own initiatives, the governments of major Asian countries also must demonstrate strong leadership.

July 3, 2007

July 3, 2007

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