Rankings data row fuels push to oust university leader
Faculty members claim that the university, under Nagata’s leadership, misreported data on international student numbers at the university in an alleged bid to increase the university’s rank in Times Higher Education’s global university rankings over the past two years.
They further allege that he used inaccurate information on foreign students to apply to the education ministry for the university to be designated a ‘National University’, a prestigious title in Japan, which in turn may have helped in his bid to remain president of the university, despite strong faculty opposition during the selection process.
When University World News contacted the University of Tsukuba for a response to the allegations, the PR department said it had explained to Times Higher Education that different definitions are used for the two rankings – and that it now “considered the matter closed”.
The issue was raised last week in the Japanese Diet (parliament) by Diet member Taiga Ishikawa, who called for an explanation from the Ministry of Education on the data discrepancy. He requested an investigation into both the alleged data misrepresentation and the election of Nagata.
Academics say governance issues may not be restricted to Tsukuba and could have a significant bearing on higher education integrity in Japan and the international reputation of Japanese universities. In particular, academics at Tsukuba pointed to Nagata’s influential role serving as chair of the Japan Association of National Universities.
Nagata was controversially appointed for his second six-year term as university president, starting this month, despite losing the faculty ‘vote of intent’ held last October. Two-thirds of some 950 faculty voted against him.
In a statement in October, the Tsukuba selection committee, which includes people outside the university, including business people, said it came to its conclusion after assessing recommendations from Kyoiku Kenkyu Hyogikai (Japan’s Education and Research Council) followed by interviews with all the candidates running for president of the university.
In its statement in Japanese, it said: “Kyosuke Nagata is a man of integrity and intellect and capable of managing educational and research activities at Tsukuba University in an appropriate and effective way. He also has passion and ability to take action. He is considered a person who can formulate medium-term plans and promote them while demonstrating vision and will be able to increase the excellence of Tsukuba University and therefore suitable to be its president.”
The university’s selection committee also scrapped the six-year term limits for the university’s president in April 2020, a move that faculty said was done in secret, without transparency and without informing faculty.
Opponents say that the decision by the university’s selection committee to uphold Nagata’s position was a blatant violation of the faculty vote.
“Faculty and students were stunned and scandalised by the decision of the election committee, but had no power to overturn this,” Etsuko Taketani, professor of American literature at the faculty of humanities and social sciences, University of Tsukuba, said at a press conference in Tokyo on Thursday.
“The selection of university presidents despite a vote loss from the faculty, and only on the basis of a committee that has been appointed by the president (himself) originally, is against the democratic practices in higher education,” she said.
Controversy over rankings submissions
Controversy erupted last year when Japanese media noted a discrepancy in the university’s data submission on international student numbers. The administration at the university is accused of inflating numbers to the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings that places Tsukuba University in 400-500th position among world universities.
The University of Tsukuba reported it has 3,500 international students – an estimated 20% of its student body – and was planning to increase the number. But Taketani said the university only has 2,500 enrolled international students, alleging that the university “inflated the number of international students by including those who are not, by THE’s definitions, students”.
Documents revealed the university had included foreign students who were not taking credit-bearing courses in undergraduate and graduate programmes which, Taketani said, is “a clear violation of THE’s rankings standards, based on enrolment”.
Discrepancies emerged between the data submitted to the THE World University Rankings, where among Japanese universities Tsukuba University was top for international students (with 20%) in their 2021 rankings (published last September) and second in the THE Japan rankings, with a much lower figure of 12.6% international students.
In the previous year the discrepancy was even greater: 21% international students in the global ranking compared with 12.3% in the THE Japan ranking.
Taketani pointed to documents showing THE promised an investigation into the apparently inconsistent data submission, after clarifying what is defined as an international student.
For example, the university cannot include those who are not enrolled in undergraduate or graduate programmes, and hence, cannot gain credits; or visitors who stay on campus for fewer than three months and, hence, do not have any student ID and cannot earn credits. Both of these categories were included in the Tsukuba submissions to THE.
“We don’t know whether Nagata and his cabinet reported the data because they misunderstood the English used in the [THE] document, or because they don’t know what an institutional credit is, or because they knowingly ignore the definitions in order to gain an unfair advantage,” she said, noting that the guidelines for both the Japanese rankings and world rankings are in English.
At the time of going to press, THE had not responded to a UWN request for comment.
Purported benefits of international student data
The data submitted to THE enabled Tsukuba University to show better results in the global rankings than Japan’s top universities, with the University of Tokyo reporting 13% international students, and Kyoto University, another leading national university, reporting 11% international students among its student body.
According to Taketani, this helped Tsukuba to boost its reputation internationally.
However, with the international students indicator accounting for less than 2.5% of the world ranking evaluation system, Taketani acknowledged it may not have affected its actual position.
Yukari Yoshihara, associate professor of English literature at Tsukuba University, said:
“University of Tsukuba falls short in areas such as in the development of leading research compared to top national universities. To cope, the administration is turning to false data which is a total violation of democracy in our university.”
But in a statement issued on Friday, the PR department of the University of Tsukuba stated that it had “explained to THE that the numbers of our international students for WUR [World University Rankings] and the Japan University Rankings (JUR) differ because the definitions of students for these rankings are not identical, and they agreed with us in their statement.
“They did not see any necessity to restate the number of our international students in the past rankings and now consider the matter closed.”
Akira Toyama from the university’s PR section responded to a request from University World News for comment on the faculty members’ allegations saying: “The matter is now closed.”
While the discrepancy may seem minor, Yoshihara claimed that the use of the data played a part in Tsukuba being designated a national university in 2020, a title reserved for world-class universities in Japan, providing extra government funding and prestige.
According to Taketani, Tsukuba was designated a national university just five days before Nagata’s re-appointment notice last year, giving the election committee “good reason to re-elect Nagata”.
President selection a wider issue
The University of Tsukuba joins several recent cases of controversial appointments of presidents in Japanese higher education institutions after the National University Corporation Act was passed in 2004.
A high-profile case was the faculty uproar in October last year when the president of the University of Tokyo, Teruo Fujii, was appointed by the selection committee.
Yoshihara explained that the revised university law has affected the democratic process in higher education. The selection committee, which has the final word in the decision on the president, is appointed in close consultation with the president of the university and officials in the ministry of education.
The procedure, she contends, permits a conflict of interest and opens the door to government influence in the administration of universities that are already dependent on public funding.
She pointed to other universities, including Tokyo, Hiroshima, Hokkaido and Kyoto universities, whose faculty perceive serious problems in the university president selection system and its impact on university autonomy.