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Turning Japan's universities into genuine global players

Authors:
OPINION
COMMENTARY
/
JAPAN
Turning Japan’s universities into genuine global players
BY
NANCY SNOW
SPECIAL TO THE JAPAN TIMES
ARTICLE HISTORY
The balance of power between Japan and China has tilted in favor of China. I’m not talking
about disputed islands in the South China Sea but rather inside the minds of the best
educated in the Asian region. China now outranks Japan in higher education, according to
the recently released Times Higher Education Asia University Rankings 2015. Except for the
University of Tokyo that remains the top ranked Asian university, there are now more top
ranked universities in China (21) than in Japan (19). China’s top two universities are Peking
University at No. 4 and Tsinghua University No. 5, ahead of Kyoto University that is ranked
No. 9.
I taught at Tsinghua University in Beijing and marveled at the level of English language
competence. Students had English names to go along with their Chinese given names and
they readily utilized English language media and scholarly journals.
Learning English was seen as a ticket to the world and Tsinghua had its own “English
enthusiasts” club that featured old Hollywood movies. I was asked to vote for the best
English written essay about “Roman Holiday” starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck.
Not once did I sense that English was viewed as an import language or a threat to Chinese
history and culture. It was an enhancer, not a burden, embraced for what it could do to
advance the ambitions of the Chinese university students.
Many of those students asked me to write letters of recommendation so that they could
attend top ranked American universities. Anything below the top 50 wasn’t considered.
Needless to say, those students kept me on top of my game in teaching and research. Their
scholarly ambition fed my own productivity. I often met with students outside the classroom
at a local Starbucks where we would discuss their dreams and career ambitions. It was a
lively exchange fueled by a back-and-forth ability to converse in global English.
One day I was returning on my bicycle from teaching a class when a young Chinese woman
on her bicycle abruptly stopped me. She asked if I could meet with her to discuss graduate
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school. Normally I wouldn’t advise someone outside of my classroom, but she seemed so
eager to meet. When we did, she explained that studying in America was her lifelong dream.
A letter of recommendation from me could in her words, “change her life.”
When I told her that since she wasn’t in any of my classes I personally couldn’t write her
letter of recommendation, she was devastated. She said that Chinese faculty did not regularly
meet with students outside of class or write letters of recommendation, so she was relying on
a complete stranger American professor to help.
Despite her disappointment, my meetings with so many Chinese university students helped
to illustrate China’s global rise in the 21st century. These students who were enrolled at one
of China’s and Asia’s best universities were still hungry for options beyond China’s borders.
Things that I had taken for granted as a global educator were life-changing events to them.
I’ve never felt so appreciated as an educator.
In contrast, I’ve taught and guest lectured at dozens of Japanese universities and rarely do I
meet a student who asks me about pursuing graduate education overseas. I’m rarely asked
anything during a class lecture. In comparison to the Chinese classroom where my graduate
students regularly asked me questions, the Japanese classroom is rather silent.
I know all the explanations for this, how Japanese students are prepared for exams and
discouraged from questioning the teacher, among other cultural heritage differences. In my
many guest lectures I have gotten quite used to the quiet but it still frustrates.
Simply put, if Japan wants to raise its own profile in the world, along with its universities, it
must place greater emphasis on group discussion, debate and public presentation.
If globalization were a person, it would be an extrovert skilled in the art of conversation and
persuasion, and English (whether second or native language) would be its tool of
interpersonal communication.
This globalization “person” skilled in public presentation is not the cultural norm for Japan,
a country that historically has been a bit put off by skilled speakers. Japanese studies scholars
point out that public speaking and speaking well or skillfully tend to hold more negative than
positive connotations. There are proverbs loosely translated as “smart in words, weak in
deeds”; “an empty drum thunders loudly”; or “a mewing cat will not catch a mouse.” Despite
this tendency, Japan can change and it is changing with a more open embrace of the global.
In the last several years there has been a more concerted government-led effort to globalize
the Japanese university. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called for making 10 Japanese
universities qualify among the world’s top 100 universities by 2020. It’s an unlikely goal, but
it doesn’t mean that Japan shouldn’t aim beyond the stars in globalizing the campus.
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I would start with creating an atmosphere that is more welcoming to senior foreign faculty. I
retired from a full professorship last year in the United States but have not felt like many
Japanese universities would have a place for me.
Several Japanese faculty friends have told me that foreign faculty are sometimes seen as
indulged and spoiled in comparison to their Japanese counterparts. Perhaps we are, but
that’s more of a reflection of the workload of Japanese faculty. Japanese faculty generally
teach an overload of courses. In exchange they aren’t expected to publish much because
there is no promotional payoff to scholarship.
International faculty like myself arrive from a university setting where scholarship is as
important as teaching, often more important. It is that scholarship that helps put us and our
universities on the global map of recognition. Not only that, but foreign faculty at some of the
world’s top universities do a lot of media interviews and public speaking at national and
international conferences, activities which may be seen as outshining some Japanese faculty
counterparts.
Recently a Japanese university expressed interest in hiring me with the proposed title of
distinguished professor. This would be a brand new position and the main worry was not
salary but how such a new position might impact the
wa
(harmony) of the campus. Would it
incite jealousy among existing faculty?
As long as Japanese universities continue to operate in a zero-sum atmosphere (you win, I
lose), then we can expect smaller gains in Japan’s global rankings.
Japan’s universities can be globally competitive. It will require doing more with less. Right
now there are over 700 colleges and universities in Japan, an unsustainable number. Japan
will have to close some of the less competitive universities and at least double or triple the
number of foreign faculty.
A common myth is that faculty from overseas demand salaries that are double to triple their
Japanese counterparts. This myth is based on the supposed excessive salaries for professors
in the United States and elsewhere. For the record, my salary as a full professor at a state
university was not six figures, but if I taught over the summer and spoke at international
conferences it tilted in that direction.
Nevertheless, there is more to being a foreign faculty than just a salary. We global educators
who live and work in Japan are here because we want to help internationalize the university.
We are not here to be a threat, an imposition, or a spoiled onlooker. Rather, view us as brand
ambassadors for globalization and let us help you shine.
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Nancy Snow, Ph.D., is an Abe Fellow and visiting professor at Keio University and
author/editor of 10 books. Her book on Brand Japan will be released later this year.
www.nancysnow.com
(
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... The Times Higher Education Asia University Rankings in 2015 listed more top-ranked universities in China (21) than in Japan (19). China had begun to invest vast amounts of money to improve their universities by opening them to international talent and by focusing on English language competence and discussion-driven learning styles (Snow 2015). ...
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