Japan's Globalization Project Stalls as Some Criticize Focus on Elite Universities

David McNeill

Japan's Global 30 project was designed to pump money into internationalizing 30 colleges. So far, the money has gone only to 13 large research institutions like the U. of Tokyo (above).
September 08, 2010

As Japan watchers warn that the island nation is becoming more insular, the government's newest bid to internationalize Japan's stuffy higher-education system—the misnamed Global 30—is off to a wobbly start.

The goal was to recruit 30 universities and support their internationalization efforts. Beginning last year on a 3.2-billion-yen, or about $38-million, budget, the project aims to significantly increase the number of foreign students in the country and Japanese students studying abroad.

But the education ministry's tough selection criteria mean that just 13 elite universities have been chosen so far. Government cuts have already shaved up to 30 percent from the budget allocated to each institution. And the remaining 17 spots open to universities are unlikely to be filled, according to two administrators at universities in the exclusive club.

"It's disappointing," says Go Yoshida, a professor in the Office of International Strategic Planning at Nagoya University, one of the 13 selectees. "Quite honestly, Japan is late in the game of globalization in higher education. But the government's left hand doesn't know what its right hand is doing."

The stakes for this island nation are high. After more than two decades and billions of yen in scholarships, fewer than 4 percent of Japan's university students come from abroad—133,000, well below China, with 223,000, and the United States with 672,000. Just 5 percent of its 353,000 university teachers are foreign, according to ministry of education statistics. Most of those teach English.

At the opposite end of the education pendulum, students here are increasingly staying home: Japanese undergraduate enrollment in American universities has plummeted by more than half since 2000, estimates the ministry. Japanese student enrollment in European institutions is also down.

"Frankly, in my view Japan is going backwards," says Ian de Stains, executive director of the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan, and one of many observers who believe that despite government rhetoric about internationalization, Japan is becoming more isolationist. "The big danger is that Japan will lose touch and fail to compete globally."

South Korea, with less than half Japan's population, sends twice as many students to the United States. At some American universities, such as Cornell, the number of Japanese students is behind not just the number from China, India, and South Korea, but even from Thailand and tiny Singapore. "The drop is without precedent," says Mark Selden, a senior fellow at Cornell's East Asia program.

Global 30 is supposed to partly remedy those ills, helping Japan reach a government goal of 300,000 foreign students by 2020, while sending the same number of Japanese students abroad.

Participating universities receive an annual grant of 200-400 million yen (between $2.4-million and $4.8-million) annually for five years to employ foreign faculty members and English-speaking support staff, and to create new all-English undergraduate courses. Each university is also required to set up offices outside Japan, both to recruit locally and help Japanese students study in other countries.

Japan's education ministry hopes that its modest commitment will help transform the country's academic landscape by luring more international students and generating more collaboration between foreign and Japanese professors.

"We think those universities will set an example for other colleges by leading with good practice," says Shigeharu Kato, deputy director of the Higher Education Bureau at the ministry. "This practice will then diffuse to other colleges around the country."

With Japan's population falling and dozens of private colleges facing bankruptcy, the government has little choice but to look beyond the country's borders. Education specialists agree that tripling the intake of foreign students will expose their Japanese counterparts to the world, and could help create a cadre of foreign academics who studied in Japan.

But while praising the Global 30 program, some are questioning its focus on elite universities. Priority was given to large institutions with proven research capacity, such as the University of Tokyo and the private Waseda University, says Akiyoshi Yonezawa, an associate professor at the Center for the Advancement of Higher Education in Tohoku University—another of the 13 selected institutions.

Tough Demands

"Smaller and midsized institutions, despite satisfying many of the strong international criteria, were eliminated from the selection process," he says. He adds that some of the country's best universities, such as the Tokyo Institute of Technology, were driven away from the program by its demands, which included raising the percentage of international students to 20 percent and the share of international professors to 10 percent by 2020.

Paul Snowden, dean of Waseda's School of International Liberal Studies, says that institutions that have achieved success attracting international students should have been rewarded for their efforts but instead were disqualified for having already met the ministry's goals.

Half of the students at Mr. Snowden's institution are from abroad, he says. But despite this accomplishment, three other Waseda faculties—the departments of political science; economics, science, and engineering; and social sciences — were selected for the Global 30.

"It was flattering, but disappointing, that basically our curriculum had been imitated by the ministry and disseminated to other places, but we weren't allowed any of the money," Mr. Snowden says.

He questions whether the ratio the School of International Liberal Studies has achieved can be replicated by others. "I'm pretty sure that extreme case is not going to be achieved by more than a handful of institutions in Japan, though."

Despite the concerns about the new program, Mr. Kato of the education ministry says Global 30 is now taking off and is "almost at cruising altitude." And there are some signs to support that.

Nagoya University's Mr. Yoshida says the roughly $3.5-million it received has helped the institution raise its intake of foreign undergraduate and graduate students by 170, and open new offices in Germany and Uzbekistan.

Yet the colleges and the ministry have been frustrated by cost cutting ordered by the Democratic Party of Japan government, which took power last year just after Global 30 was approved. Nagoya's government support, for example, shrank 27 percent during its current fiscal year, which started in April. "We're just starting to launch this and the cuts have come. And we fear more are due," says Mr. Yoshida.

Some believe that the government may be switching priorities to a separate effort called Campus Asia, which is intended to harmonize China, Japan, and South Korea's colleges and ultimately keep more students in the region. A working group from each of the countries is set to meet in China this year, with the project officially starting in April.

Little Fiscal Legroom

With the worst public debt in the industrialized world—900 trillion yen, or $10.6-trillion—Japan has much less fiscal legroom than its competitors. That is likely to mean careful scrutiny of all education spending and a demand that colleges and the education ministry deliver more bang for the government's buck.

Even if this year's cuts were reversed and the government met its financial commitments to Global 30, Mr. Yonezawa of Tohoku University and others doubt that the student targets are attainable without major reform outside the education system. "It is impossible to achieve this sort of internationalization only with Global 30," he says, adding that Japan needs to focus on its second- and third-tier colleges. He also urges major changes in the labor markets and among Japan's conservative companies to give foreign graduates an incentive to stay and work in the country.

Despite these looming issues, Waseda's Mr. Snowden is among many who believe that Japan is still in the race. "Japan is indeed late in the game. But with much interest from Korea and China, I think it can find a new role as an international education base" within the region.