The Japanese economy may have been in the comparative doldrums for the last decade and half but concern for the internationally competitive position of Japanese universities continues. So, in the second week of December, Tokyo University of Science (Tokyo Rika Daigaku) hosted the fourth in a series of international collaboration workshops in the gracious surroundings of a nearby hotel.
On this occasion, the themes were highly topical, mixing nanotechnology with biological sciences. The partners were predominantly from institutions within the University of California system, with just a sprinkling from elsewhere, including Milan and Padua, Cambridge and Manchester.
The presentations showed the technical virtuosity worthy of a high-profile professional conference. Altogether then an impressive undertaking for a single institution such as TUS. But what was it all about?
To understand the impetus here, it is worth recalling the tranformative effect of the Meiji Restoration, with the ending of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1867 - TUS was founded only 14 years later. The strategy for self-renewal then was the translation of useful foreign works into Japanese. Already by the 1920s and 1930s, it had proved sufficiently successful that scientists such as Paul Dirac and Werner Heisenberg could continue their lecture tour from the US across the Pacific to give talks in Japan to highly receptive audiences (as Graham Farmelo's recent biography of Dirac reminds us).
By the late 1990s, when Japanese prosperity gave flight to greater ambitions, science policy-makers were concocting schemes to attract the order of 10,000 foreign researchers to Japan. That this was prescient, but insufficiently realised, was suggested at Waseda University shortly before the TUS workshop, by no less an authority on international rankings than Martin Ince of the QS World University Rankings and QS Top Universities Guide.
Ince argues that the surest way for universities in Japan (as well as Taiwan and South Korea) to improve their overall global standing is to recruit more faculty, especially overseas academics, at the same time leavening their student bodies with more foreign students.
Higher citation ratings, as he sees it, are a secondary consideration, as they will follow upon attracting good people. So, certainly the workshop series must help TUS gain greater recognition, as it vies with comparable institutions in the capital - University of Tokyo, Tokyo Institute of Technology and Keio University - for that prized place in the league tables.
But, as one Californian participant was overheard to say greeting colleagues, "There do not seem to be so many Japanese here. Maybe we can speak at our usual pace and talk among ourselves in the discussion periods."
This may point to a domestic quandary when it comes to gaining a doctorate in Japan that may be less familiar to foreign academics. For many Japanese industries encourage their researchers to publish with a view to submitting a compilation of their papers for a doctorate.
Not unnaturally, industry wants to catch its researchers before they become too specialised through doctoral training at a university. Thus TUS may have some 3,000 master's degree students, but only some 300 undertaking doctorates. As TUS Director for Internationalisation Dr Tadanori Mizoguchi wryly observes, the academically most able can stay on for
their advanced degree but are at risk of missing out on a good job, while those content to go directly into industry can gain both good jobs and, in due course, a doctorate, too.
Fresh strategies are therefore needed simply to help position Japanese universities in attracting students. To this end, the TUS workshops turn out to be the public face of closed sessions where the chief business, apart from support for continuing study abroad programmes, is the fashioning of degrees with dual validation from TUS and a foreign partner and a move to teach courses at TUS in English.
In a reversal of the Meiji strategy, the Japanese government has selected 30 institutions to try the experiment of teaching graduate courses in English. As the world's second largest economy ticks over steadily, Japanese universities, such as TUS, are casting around for what will give them an uptick.
* Douglas Rogers works on international science and technology policy, cooperation and funding. He began visiting in Japan in 1977and on this visit was guest of Gifu University.
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