Before we start on any discussion of Japanese universities in the context of international competitiveness, we first need to address the question of why international competitiveness is an important issue.
Particularly if we are to compare universities in Japan with those in Britain, it is essential to understand the substantial differences of context that exist between the two countries and the different kinds of international competition they face. Unless we are clear on this point, it will be extremely difficult to make any meaningful comparisons between the two systems.
'Imagined' international competitiveness
We might begin by comparing universities with other types of institutions. No one has any reservations about measuring or questioning a country's 'international competitiveness' in terms of corporate productivity, diplomatic or military clout or the standards of its science and technology.
The reason is that, in all of these fields, what we might call 'real' international competition exists. Why 'real'? Because an actual context, or market, exists in which competition takes place on an international level.
In the field of education, though, any discussion of international competitiveness needs to be carefully qualified.
Take compulsory education, for instance. To be sure, it is possible to argue that basic education is relevant to international competition because of its impact on the quality and quantity of the 'human capital' that provides the basis for any country's economic strength.
The Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, test which measures the achievements of students in OECD countries, is the classic example of this line of thinking.
But competition in this sense is something quite different from the international competition we find in global markets in the various fields I alluded to above, where a setting for real competition clearly exists.
Compulsory education happens within the closed-off interior space within an individual nation-state. The only setting for international competition that exists is the 'imagined' competition that people have set up to measure which country's compulsory education is the best.
But no 'real' context of competition exists. Young students do not move en masse to the country with the best education system, for example, and neither do countries compete to attract the best teachers.
What about university education, if we apply the same argument?
It is true that as a result of globalisation a degree of 'real' competition does now exist in terms of competition for students, teachers, researchers and funding - chiefly among countries and institutions that use English as the language of instruction.
In terms of our comparison between Japan and Britain, it is clear that British universities, particularly its world-class universities, are on the frontlines of this kind of competition.
In non-English-speaking countries, though, competition has not yet led to the formation of a 'real' market in which students and faculty move across international borders. Universities are not competing with each other for the best talent.
In this sense, university education is in the same situation as compulsory education throughout the world: it takes place within a more or less enclosed space - albeit not quite to the same extent as with compulsory education. Even here, to be sure, a kind of 'imagined' international competition is in place, in the form of international university rankings and the like.
But outside the English-speaking world - and particularly in non-Western countries - the results of these rankings do not have any substantial influence on the domestic market for university education. Whatever competition exists, it remains confined to the domestic arena. There is no international element involved.
Now that we have clarified the context of the debate, if we compare the international competitiveness of Japanese and British universities, the answer is clear. In a context of 'real' competition, Japanese universities are at a decisive disadvantage.
There is simply no way that Japan, where teaching is done in a language that is among the hardest to learn from the perspective of West European languages, can compete on level terms with higher education in countries whose national language happens to be the world's most important lingua franca - not even if some universities teach all or part of their classes in English.
Unless there is a subject that for some reason needs to be studied or researched in a particular country, and unless the added value of studying there is apparent according to global standards, universities from outside the English-speaking world simply cannot win.
But my purpose here is not simply to reaffirm the fact that Japanese universities are at an overwhelming disadvantage. What I am interested in is the sense in which international competition among universities is and is not a relevant problem for Japanese universities within the context I have just sketched out.
I believe that doing so will uncover the real problems with the Japanese education system today.
Transparency and accountability are important requirements for organisations of all types today.
In the case of universities in English-speaking countries, all the relevant information is openly available to interested parties around the world. From teaching and research to the university's administration and finances, everything is written in English, the global language.
Assessing the quality of student dissertations at various levels, for example, is an easy matter so long as they are written in English. There is simply no way to hide.
The same is true of course syllabi and textbooks. Written in the global language, they can be accessed globally by anyone who wants to look. The information is made freely available to the public on this basis.
With this information to hand, assigning rankings is a simple matter. Whether it is the quality of the institution's teaching or research, the state of its finances, or the strength and weakness of its management, the details are openly available to anyone who might be interested.
This accessibility makes it easy for a context for real international competition to form, with internationally mobile faculty, students and donors choosing one institution over another. In a competitive environment like this, the way that a university is evaluated is a genuine problem with consequences for its very survival.
The language barrier
What about Japan's universities? Unless it is translated into English, information on the quality of a university's teaching and research as well as its management and financial situation is accessible only to people who can read Japanese.
The formidable barrier of Japanese, an extremely difficult language by global standards, means that what happens at Japanese universities remains unclear to the outside world.
Science and engineering subjects in which research is routinely published in English are the exception. In other subjects the quality of teaching and the attainment levels of students are not open to outside scrutiny.
As a result, even if someone does compile a global ranking of universities, it does not have any serious impact on the university market - for students, faculty and funding - within Japan itself. In other words, universities are able to get by without being exposed to 'real' international competition.
Japanese universities exist at an almost total remove from real global competition.
After graduation, students in the humanities and social sciences, who make up nearly 60% of the total, compete for jobs in the country's most prestigious companies based entirely on what university they attended.
All that matters is how selective the school is - no importance is given to what or how they studied while they were there and grades are more or less irrelevant.
And this job-search process takes up most of the final year in college, to the total neglect and detriment of students' studies. This fact alone is sufficient to illustrate how far removed Japanese universities are from real competition with the rest of the world.
Nevertheless, in recent years there has been considerable debate in Japan about the importance of making the country's universities more competitive. But how many people are really aware of the difference between the real and imagined competition that I have just described?
To be sure, just as with compulsory education, the quality of a country's university teaching is a decisively important factor in determining the quality of that country's human capital.
In this sense, it is understandable that people should be concerned about international competition in tertiary education, even without much coming and going of people and funding across borders.
(Incidentally, the total number of foreign faculty teaching full-time at Japanese universities and colleges is just 6,603 as of 2011, or less than 4%. Universities supply almost all their education and research needs from within Japan.)
I do not mean to suggest that measuring the quality of university education - to the extent to which differences of curriculum and syllabus allow - and measuring its strengths and weaknesses in comparison with other countries are entirely without significance.
But one needs to bear in mind the reality that markets in Japan - for labour, university education and products - are protected by the barrier of the Japanese language. It is the scale of these markets, created by a population of more than 100 million people proficient in Japanese, that makes these domestic markets possible.
This granted, it may well be true that improvements in quality within the context of this kind of imagined competition will help to bolster Japan's international competitiveness - in terms of the economy, science and technology, politics and diplomacy and so on.
However, this is something quite separate from a serious consideration of the extent to which universities are exposed to real international competition and the issues they face as a result.
There is a danger that people in charge of reforms will confuse these two and try to boost universities' real international competitiveness even though they are not really involved in any real competition. I am afraid this will have little effect.
I am referring, of course, to the 'globalisation strategies' that are all the rage at the moment in Japanese universities. Typically these consist of measures like increasing the number of classes taught in English or hiring more foreign faculty in an attempt to improve the university's global ranking.
There is really little need for such moves. Not only that - for the vast majority of universities, improving international competitiveness in this way has no effect at all in terms of carrying forward the kind of reforms that are really needed.
There is a lack of incentives. If resources were being carefully concentrated into a small number of hand-picked institutions, that would be one thing. But the current approach will not improve real competitiveness at all.
Even at the top-level universities, real international competition exists in a meaningful sense only in a small number of fields. And in those areas, tough international competition is already taking place.
As I said earlier, the reason why the same thing does not happen in other fields or at other levels of education is simply because there is neither the necessity nor incentive for it.
To take one example, at the University of Tokyo a mere 6% of faculty are non-Japanese. At Oxford University where I teach, by contrast, non-British nationals make up some 41% of the faculty.
The same is true of students: at the University of Tokyo foreign students make up just 8% of the total across all departments, including graduate students. At Oxford the equivalent figure is 29%. For graduate students alone, the figures are 14% and 58%, respectively.
It is therefore clear that even Japan's top institutions are not succeeding in attracting the most talented faculty and students from around the world.
If I may cite an example from my personal experience, the Nissan Institute of Japanese Studies at Oxford is a social studies research facility built with a donation from a Japanese corporation. Similar examples are quite common at many of the top universities in other countries.
At the University of Tokyo, the first example of a research centre funded by an overseas foundation - a space research facility incorporating several buildings funded by a grant worth JPY570 million (US$5.6 million) from the US-based Kavli Foundation - was so unusual that it made national news when it opened some years ago.
Although the situation may be somewhat different in the sciences and engineering, as far as the humanities and social sciences are concerned Japan's universities are not facing a situation of real competition, as this example shows.
This does not necessarily mean that Japanese universities and departments in the humanities and social sciences have no global significance, however.
Japan's experience in becoming the first non-Western country to modernise is one that exists as an accumulation of knowledge in Japanese. It is an experience with both positive and negative sides. Many of the things that the Japanese people have learned from their past can be put to use as knowledge for the rest of the world.
By sending students who have absorbed that knowledge - even through the medium of the Japanese language - into the world, Japan has the potential to make a contribution in a quite different sense from international competitiveness.
Japan's universities, I believe, need to be more aware of what makes them different from universities in the English-speaking world and other countries where classes are taught in the other, closely related West European languages.
Focusing on the kind of added-value education that only Japan can offer would be a much more realistic strategy. In that kind of context, it might even make sense to teach some classes in English.
But as it is now, Japanese universities are unable to differentiate between the real competition that they are forced to confront and the unreal, unnecessary kind. This misunderstanding is at the root of the confusion that we see in Japan's higher education system today and of the inefficient allocation of resources that results.
* Takehiko Kariya is professor of the sociology of Japanese society at the Nissan Institute of Japanese Studies and department of sociology, University of Oxford. This article was first published in Nippon.com, entitled "Japanese University Reforms and the Illusion of International Competitiveness".
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