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Monday, Jan. 4, 2010

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Grand entrance: Students pass through the famous Red Gate at the University of Tokyo's Hongo campus in Bunkyo Ward last summer. SATOKO KAWSAKI PHOTO


Universities must look abroad to reverse Japan's brain drain

Staff writer

Japan appears to be suffering from brain drain. Examples include chemist Osamu Shimomura and physicist Yoichiro Nambu, both of whom won Nobel Prizes in 2008 for research conducted in U.S. universities.

Japan is not the ideal place to seek employment for some postdoctoral researchers. According to a study conducted by Masako Asano of Osaka Prefecture University, 41 percent of postdocs in particle physics leave Japan to get jobs because there aren't enough here to go around.

But Japan's public universities rate quite well internationally, according to the evaluation committee on national universities, part of the education ministry.

Six universities were ranked among the world's best by Quacquarelli Symonds Ltd. in 2009, including the University of Tokyo (22nd) and Kyoto University (25th).

"Japanese universities are greatly advanced, particularly in natural science research," said Motohisa Kaneko, an education professor at the University of Tokyo, otherwise known as Todai.

"For example, the number of papers (in the natural sciences) submitted for publication to academic journals is the second most after Harvard," he said, adding he thinks Todai got a lower ranking than it deserves.

According to Norimichi Kojima, an executive vice president at the University of Tokyo, scientific research there gets high marks overseas. Although its work in the humanities is also highly rated, Todai isn't as well-recognized in this field because some publications are issued only in Japanese.

"The University of Tokyo is one of the top research-oriented universities, and we educate what we call elites in the country," said Akihiko Tanaka, another executive vice president there. "Forty-four percent of the (current) DPJ Cabinet came from our university. Sometimes we're also criticized for this, but many of our graduates also work in the ministries and courthouses."

Despite the wide recognition, Todai is still struggling to bring in more undergraduate female and international students.

"Female students account for only 20 percent of the university," said Kojima. "More female students are entering the humanities, but not the physics or mathematics departments."

Among 2,550 foreign students, more than 2,000 are doing postgraduate work because some postgraduate studies are conducted in English.

Tanaka, part of the Global 30 project to bring more foreign students to Japan, said postgraduate students from overseas are more common in research-oriented universities. To lure more international students to its undergraduate programs, the University of Tokyo will start a program in two years conducted solely in English, he said.

Tanaka said Chinese and Korean students have relatively high incentives to come to Todai, but more scholarships are needed to attract students from all over the world. "That's what American universities are doing, so students with excellent academic backgrounds tend to go there," he said.

Meanwhile, the University of Hong Kong, which ranked 24th in the QS list of top universities, has been providing major financial assistance to both undergraduate and postgraduate students.

"The chances of scholarship are high compared with other universities around the world," John Spinks, chairman of the admissions committee at Hong Kong University, said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

"Scholarship provision is good. We have at least two major sources. One is government. We also have a number of private donors who are very keen to see their donations used directly for students," he added.

All research students at Hong Kong University receive a grant that includes fees for daily necessities. According to pro-vice chancellor Paul Tam, funding for postgraduate students comes from the government, and "HKU has been most successful among local institutions in obtaining external competitive research funding for projects and large programs."

However, he says research and development funds in Hong Kong are low, reaching only 0.79 percent of GDP, compared with an average of 2 percent to 4 percent in developed countries. "An increase of funding is much needed," he said in an e-mail message.

While its academic and research achievement ranked much lower than Todai, Hong Kong University succeeds in creating a more international environment for students.

Including students from mainland China, international students occupy 26.2 percent at the school, more than double the percentage at the University of Tokyo.

In 1999, Hong Kong University began sending faculty staff to China to raise its visibility and to interview candidates. From 2005 onward, they started working in neighboring countries like Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, and then went to Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to get information out this year, Spinks said.

The university is also using YouTube and Facebook to reach potential candidates over the Internet.

"(The international campus environment) helps students develop more global competences, a set of skills required in today's world," Spinks said.

In Japan, although universities are trying to promote "internationalization," the number of outbound exchange students has fallen in recent years, according to Kaneko of the University of Tokyo.

"I think a one-year exchange program has an educational effect on students," but only 3 percent of undergraduate students at Todai study abroad, he said.

Kaneko also thinks Japanese universities don't rank high partly because professors lack international networks with other researchers around the world and aren't quoted very much.

Highest-rated schools in '09

  • Harvard University
  • University of Cambridge
  • Yale University
  • University College London
  • Imperial College London
  • University of Oxford
  • University of Chicago
  • Princeton University
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • California Institute of Technology

SOURCE: Quacquarelli Symonds Ltd.

"While professors in EU countries have their network, Japan and other East Asian countries don't really have regional networks," Kaneko said.

But he believes the current concept of higher education itself is the major problem now facing Japanese universities.

"It's becoming more difficult for young people to have prospects for the future," he said. "They don't know what they want to do. I think we should redefine the concept of university education."

According to him, university education in Japan is targeted at students who want to pursue postgraduate studies and gives them autonomy for doing what they want to do. But there has been a great mismatch between students and the labor market recently, he said.

"Companies used to train university graduates, saying university education isn't particularly useful, but they don't anymore," he said. "Business people complain about university education, but they themselves don't know what kind of competences students need."

Kaneko argues that it is convenient for employers to criticize university graduates because they can control the starting salaries.

"The starting salary for university graduates (in Japan) is one of the lowest in developed countries. That for science majors is about half of that in the U.S.," he said.

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