Not just international but ‘Super Global Universities’

Japan recently unveiled its Super Global Universities initiative in a bid to boost the lacklustre world rankings of its top universities. At the forefront of this ambitious plan is the rapid internationalisation of its inward-looking higher education sector, aimed at creating global universities and internationally minded students.

“Public funds during the next decade will be extended to support the selected universities to improve their internationalisation projects,” said Yutaro Namikawa, the official in charge of Super Global Universities in the Ministry of Education’s international planning section.

Under the scheme approved in April, and using extra funds being disbursed from the beginning of October, some 37 Japanese universities selected by an Education Ministry panel of experts from over 100 that applied, will receive government subsidies of around 420 million yen (US$3.6 million) annually for up to 10 years.

Experts view the latest government-led efforts as long overdue and a serious attempt to internationalise universities in comparison to former moves that focused heavily on increasing foreign student numbers.

“Despite the speed to globalise now, there is no turning back. Japanese companies also need more internationally experienced employees,” said Yukiko Shimmi, an assistant professor at Hitotsubashi University.

She noted that higher education “reforms in Japan are usually pushed by international criticism”, referring to the ministry’s attempts to improve the international rankings of Japanese universities.

In particular, the extra funds will be used to boost the number of foreign academics at the selected universities.

The statistics are alarming. Only 4% of staff are foreign nationals in top Japanese universities compared to 40% at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom and 30% at Harvard University.

Japan also falls behind in measures of international research cooperation – 26.4% of publications are co-authored with foreign authors compared to almost double that number of British papers.


The Super Global Universities scheme is part of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s education reform plans and push for globalisation under policies known as ‘Abenomics’. Although Abe has since called a snap general election, the budget has already been approved.

Last month’s World University Rankings released by UK-based Times Higher Education listed Japan’s top institution, the University of Tokyo, at 23.

The National University of Singapore, placed second behind Tokyo within the Asian region, is moving upwards and the overall ranking of Japanese universities is falling as other countries – notably China – invest in driving their universities up the rankings.

A rattled Abe, whose slogan is to restore his country’s “former economic glory”, appears determined to change the tables. He has set a target of getting 10 Japanese universities – five more than currently listed – among the best 100 institutions in the world by 2020.

The rankings are based on factors including teaching, research and citations, and international outlook, which incorporates staff, students and research.

Two tiers

The Super Global Universities project has two tiers.
  • • ‘Type A’, or 13 universities comprising top research-oriented national universities that the ministry says have the potential to be ranked among the world’s top 100. They will typically receive around 420 million yen (US$3.6 million) annually.
  • • ‘Type B’, described as innovative universities, will receive smaller subsidies of around 170 million yen (US$1.46 million) annually to develop existing international projects and increase their international profile. They will be able to use some of the funds to increase the number of classes conducted in English, by hiring overseas professors.
But the scheme is looking for real reforms of the institutions to global standards, rather than adding on a few international projects.

Waseda University, a leading institution and just one of two private universities in the top tier ‘Type A’ group, has proposed a plan to build a worldwide academic network that is open, dynamic and diverse.

Waseda Vice-president Takahiro Ono, who heads IT promotion, management planning and development, said: “Waseda has the energy and background to create top international, cutting-edge research.”

The Super Global Universities project is an important boost, to help reform Japanese universities, “but it is not only about world rankings”, he told University World News.

“Japan is not the United States. While pursuing the landmarks of globalisation such as diversity, Japanese higher education must also promote its own characteristics. For Waseda that means the core principles of using technology for the benefit of an equal and fair society.”


But there are also misgivings about the latest rush to internationalise Japanese universities.

Professor Takamitsu Sawa, president of Shiga University in western Japan, is a vociferous opponent of the Super Global Universities scheme, which he describes as overwhelmingly focusing on world rankings.

“The Reforms are short-sighted – mainly to support Abe’s goal of getting more Japanese universities into the top 100. Abe is interfering with higher education and this is a dangerous trend,” he told University World News.

Sawa also noted that reforms are aimed at pushing industrial competition to give the Japanese economy a boost, at the expense of raising the quality of liberal arts education.

Others fear that a big divide will open up between the Super Global Universities and Japan’s other institutions.

Satoshi Shirai, an assistant professor at Bunka Gakuen University, was quoted by Japan Times as saying that the government is focusing too heavily on the international profile of universities and skimming over the need for high quality research and teaching.

“Japanese universities have been trying to reform in the last decade or two, and most of their plans have failed,” Shirai said.

Sawa has similar criticisms. “Japan is not taking into consideration deep-rooted local issues in its university globalisation race, and thus will fall short of its lofty aspirations," he said.

For example: “Japanese universities are hard pressed for public funds for research – researchers prefer to work in private companies because they are better paid."

And a culture in universities that accepts foreign researchers and staff takes time to build.

“It is almost impossible to recruit highly reputable professors in their prime from overseas, just as it is difficult for professional baseball teams to hire top foreign players,” Sawa said. “The best academics will not be keen to settle down in Japan, compared to the US and UK.”