Abenomics and world-class higher education ambition

Last May, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe boldly declared that “within the next three years, eight national universities will hire 1,500 leading researchers from around the world”. Recruiting foreign faculty would be the first step in a prodigious push to place 10 Japanese universities among the world’s top 100 over the next decade.

By including university internationalisation in his long-awaited economic strategy speech, the prime minister signalled that ‘Abenomics’ intended to be more than simply a macroeconomics melange.

Instead, the vision was substantive change in the core institutions of Japanese society.

Hiring for the 2014-15 academic year is now in full swing. Unfortunately, the English-language university job listings look much the same: mostly basic English teaching jobs and a handful of science postdoctoral positions, garnished with just one or two serious academic posts.

A similar search on the four leading academic job sites in the English-speaking world turned up a grand total of five positions for Japan. Compare this with as many as 50 listings for greater China.

Off to a slow start

Clearly the ‘1,500 Faculty Plan’ is off to a slow start, if one can call it a start at all.

Abe’s plan was designed to coincide with the retirement of 1,000 Japanese faculty members over the next three years. The ambitious three-year timeline was surely more an attempt to look decisive before the summer Upper House elections than a substantive reform blueprint.

Moreover, with the incorporation of national universities in 2001, neither the education ministry nor the cabinet offices can simply dictate policy: universities themselves must first embrace reforms.

Yet all signs indicate that university leaders have not. Why?

First, consider another comparison with China. In December 2008, China’s central government announced a similarly bold “1,000 Talents Programme” – officially, the Recruitment Programme of Global Experts.

The programme has two goals: (1) attracting ‘back’ Chinese-born scholars from world-leading institutions abroad, and (2) recruiting ‘non-ethnic Chinese’ who are strategic experts in science or leaders in their respective fields.

For these foreign researchers, the ‘1,000 Talents Programme’ has two streams: long-term (effectively tenured posts) and short-term faculty (minimum of three years). Four hundred of these positions are reserved for foreigners under 40 years old.

Administratively, individual Chinese universities recruit, compete for and decide on which ‘experts’ to hire. Universities then apply to the central government for screening.

If approved, all expenses are covered by the central treasury: subsidies to offer salaries in excess of leading Western institutions, ¥48 million to ¥80 million (US$466,000 to US$777,000) in research funding and a whopping ¥16 million ‘lump sum’ signing bonus intended for costs associated with relocation and living abroad.

This helps pay for items like international schools for children, comparable housing and home-country pension replacement payments.

Luring the best minds

The Chinese government seems acutely aware of the commitment that it takes to lure the best minds from halfway around the world.

Back in Japan, where quality of life is far superior and the list of Nobel prize winners is twice as long – 19 to nine – we find no such government commitment.

Following Abe’s speech, the education ministry in July announced ¥10 billion (US$97 million) in support of 10 universities to become ‘super global’. Apparently the neologism sounds less awkward in katakana.

¥10 billion initially impresses, but when divvied out among 10 universities, it falls far short, equating to less than the lump-sum bonus payments portion of China’s ‘1,000 Talents Programme’ alone. And it is not just for salary support, but for all ‘internationalisation’ activities. No one seems to know if the funding will continue after next year.

What is internationalisation?

Even more troubling is the apparently little awareness of what ‘internationalisation’ actually involves.

Abe suggested it was necessary to have an open salary scale, an English-language environment and management practices at a ‘global standard’.

Undoubtedly, these are important. Yet arguably far more important for attracting world-class researchers is improving the working environment inside Japanese universities: sufficient office, shelf and lab space, far fewer administrative duties, less time spent in meetings, a sabbatical system, flexibility to travel to international conferences and substantive interaction with colleagues.

Unfortunately, conditions in Japanese universities – regardless of the language issue – are considerably below ‘world-class’. Which makes one think: if Japanese researchers had been afforded world-class conditions, might Japan already have 10 universities in the top 100?

Here the larger problem comes into focus. Abe’s vision, like most views on ‘internationalisation’, appears to be plugging foreign faculty into newly created spaces in Japanese universities. It seems like a step in the right direction. It might even land 1,500 foreigners over time. Yet it will neither attract nor produce the best.

Instead, making Japanese universities both global and world-class requires completely redefining the Japanese university as a whole.

How to accomplish this? Through generous support, not simply for hiring foreigners but – far more importantly – for improving conditions for all faculty.

Without such support, leading Japanese universities will never embrace substantive change: English-language, international initiatives will remain peripheral and special treatment for foreigners will inevitably generate friction.

Abenomics in internationalisation

Consider Abenomics itself. It is premised on a gamble: that massive monetary expansion and government commitment will create hope of economic recovery, thus encouraging increased spending and investment that will, in turn, generate returns in excess of deficits incurred.

Increased spending will defeat deflation and allow Japan to transition to a new model of growth.

Importantly the opening move of Abenomics was replacing the chairman of the Bank of Japan, who balked at monetary loosening and stimulus spending. Abe was keenly aware that without that initial, bold financial infusion, he would have neither the audience nor the optimism to affect bold change.

In university internationalisation, the issues are strikingly similar.

What is needed is massive government stimulus, compressed over a short period of time and yet guaranteed to continue over at least the next decade, regardless of wider political uncertainty. It is the ‘opening move’ that generates support for a radical departure from the past.

A massive commitment would create action domestically and boldly announce Japan’s presence on the global higher education stage, at just the moment when East Asia itself is taking centre stage.

As with global finance, so much of the actual success in global higher education depends on perceptions: once initial momentum is created, it leads to a virtuous, self-sustaining cycle.

That initial momentum is only possible, however, through serious, sustained government commitment. No other source of funding can compete in the now intensively competitive, high-stakes global higher education race.

That said, unlike with Abenomics and other wagers placed on the roulette wheel of global finance, the prospects for losing a bet placed on education are effectively zero: even if Japan fails to place 10 universities in the top 100, it will have refocused some of its core social institutions, best minds and youth outward to face a global tomorrow.

It will also have reaffirmed a uniquely Japanese belief last spotted during the Meiji era: education is even more important than economics for building a new future.

The world’s best minds would undoubtedly be attracted by that idea. Significantly, Meiji was the last time foreigners held many posts at leading national Japanese universities.

So forget ‘super global’ for now. Simply ‘global’ will do. It is too late this year, but hopefully by next autumn the job listings will reveal more than the usual offerings. It will be a key barometer on not simply university internationalisation but also institutional change throughout Japan.

* Jeremy Rappleye, PhD, is an associate professor at Kyoto University and a member of the Hakubi Center for Advanced Research. Email: jeremyrappleye@yahoo.com. This article was first published in The Japan Times.