Are Japanese universities losing their appeal to international students?

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Revealed in the 2019 Times Higher Education (THE) University Rankings which cover more than 1,250 universities worldwide, only one Japanese university made it to the top 100 – Kyoto University (ranked 65th) – leaving behind the rest of Japanese institutions of higher education flagging in their prestige and appeal to domestic and international learners.

Among Southeast Asian universities, Kyoto University is considerably far behind its Chinese counterpart Tsinghua University which ranked 22nd with over 36,000 full-time enrolled students and Singapore’s National University of Singapore at 23rd place taking in over 30,000 full-time enrolled learners.

Authoritarianism deeply-rooted in Japanese academia, the extremely meagre budget from government to support higher education and research programs, job follow-through in the employment sector, lack of an open culture, and the negative diplomatic image are among the reasons why Japan’s institutions lag behind its Chinese, Singaporean, and Korean counterparts.

The goal to make 10 Japanese universities rank in the global top 100 within 10 years as declared by Prime Minister Shinzo in 2013 seemed reachable at that time, and indeed, five Japanese universities made it to the world’s top 200 — the University of Tokyo placing 23rd, the highest among institutions in Asia, Kyoto University 52nd, the Tokyo Institute of Technology 125th, Osaka University 144th and Tohoku University 150th. However, in the following years, all of these institutions plunged to lower rankings, leaving only two of them among the top 200 in 2018.

One reason behind this gap between Japanese universities and other Chinese academic institutions is the huge difference in the number of learners from China and Japan taking up postgraduate studies in the United States. In 2017, 79,580 Chinese were studying the sciences (e.g. natural sciences, psychology and social sciences) at graduate schools in the U.S., outnumbering the 990 Japanese in the same category. Of those 990 Japanese students, 410 were studying social sciences. Thus, the number of Japanese postgraduate students studying natural sciences in the U.S. is a mere 0.8% of their Chinese equivalents.

Another key factor which hoists universities worldwide is the number of papers written by professors, lecturers and researchers in English and published in international specialist publications, including the frequency of citation of such papers. Apparently, Japanese universities cannot claim to be outstanding in this category.

Currently, Japan is host to nearly 270,000 students from other countries, with 93% from Asia — including 40% from China, 23% from Vietnam, 8% from Nepal and 6% from South Korea.

It appears that in recent years, Japanese universities have become less attractive, so that most talented Chinese students opt to study at graduate schools in English-speaking countries, making it rare for brilliant students from China to come to Japanese institutions.

In a statement reported at The Daily Yomiuri, “Japan has really good, advanced technologies, but that’s not enough…Countries that have an open-minded culture are more likely to attract international students. If Japanese universities, or Japanese society, can’t break out of the traditional conservative mentality, they are going to find it really hard to prosper in a globalized world.”