From Globalisation to Internationalisation – the Influence of Rankings on Japanese Higher Education by Ellen Hazelkorn


A reflection on the Japanese University system by Ellen Hazelkorn who undertook interviews in early 2008 for the IMHE project on the Impact of Rankings on Higher Education with HE leaders, their students and staff, and with policymakers, business organisations and trade unions in Japan.


Reform of Japanese Higher Education

Japan, like many OECD countries, is facing a demographic transformation – declining numbers of prospective HE students and increasing numbers of older people – and a financial crunch at a time when global competition is demanding greater investment in higher education, especially in RDI.  Previously protected by geography from the full effect of competition, Japan’s 700+ universities are facing considerable pressure and urgency to reform and modernise. Since 2000, the government has introduced a series of legislative and policy initiatives aimed at increasing institutional autonomy and management capabilities, enhancing evaluation and emphasizing quality, and developing internationally-competitive research via centres of excellence and graduate schools (1). Most of these initiatives follow a similar pattern adopted by other governments, but there are specific challenges for Japan.

Reform of Japanese higher education has coincided with the emergence of global rankings. Using 2007 Times Higher Education QS World University Ranking or Shanghai Jiao Tong Academic Ranking of World Universities (SJT) as a measurement – which is itself controversial – Japan has either 11 or 8 universities, respectively, in the top 200. According to the Times Higher Education QS, Japan ranks 5th in the world. If the data is recalibrated according to population size or GDP, Japan falls to 18th or 19th position, respectively(2).


Internationalisation has become both a university and a government priority because it is seen as a sign of global competitiveness. Countries with high levels of international students benefit from the contribution they make to domestic research and development while those with low numbers find it ‘more difficult…to capitalize on this external contribution to domestic human capital production’(3).  The Economist refers to this as the ‘battle for brainpower ’(4), while The Daily Yomiuri calls it the ‘scramble for foreign students’(5). The Japanese government aims to increase the number of international students from the current 100,000 to 300,000 by 2020 but this strategy is not without its challenges. Comparing the competitive advantages of different countries, the Observatory of Borderless Higher Education indicates Japan has only the advantage of low tuition. There are restrictions on student visas, the cost of living is high, and there are no preparatory lessons prior to the start of class(6).

Readying Japanese higher education for an influx of international students means upgrading campuses, and transforming programmes and activities into English – even though over 92% of foreign students come from Asia, of which 60% are Chinese and 15% Korean(7). Most universities are focusing on post-graduate activities, initially in specific fields - usually in science and technology. Institutional flexibility allowed under ‘incorporation’(8)  permits universities to offer distinctive tenure arrangements and salary packages to entice internationally-competitive scholars. At one university, exceptional scholars can earn up to twice their baseline salary based on performance; others are introducing similar initiatives. Knowledge of Japanese is not required because these scholars will teach at the postgraduate level, with international or internationally-minded students. But new facilities are required. HE leaders identified the need for new and more dormitories and world-class labs. At a time when university budgets are being reduced 1% annually, the financial implications make many HE leaders sceptical that the government’s target is achievable. And there are the longer-term socio-cultural, including linguistic, implications. 

Influence of Rankings in Japan

For institutions visibility is vital to the success of this strategy – international rankings have a role to play (not least because the Times Higher Education QS measures the proportion of international students and faculty) but it is not just about being highly-ranked; it is also about being recognised. Many university leaders, at all levels in the popularity stakes (in Japan, Germany and Australia), have commented that rankings have made their institution better-known both nationally and internationally. While some universities vie for high rank, for many others just being mentioned can be beneficial – helping to overcome local bias or tradition.

National rankings, such as the comprehensive Asahi Shimbun(9), may be growing in popularity but most students interviewed for this research still relied on a combination of local intelligence and entrance scores. The more difficult a university is to enter, the better it is seen to be. In contrast, international students rely heavily on global/worldwide rankings – to help identify the best university but also to help guarantee employment when they return home.

Not surprisingly, many universities are trying to improve their position, adopting strategies similar to colleagues elsewhere: becoming more strategic, identifying research strengths and niche competences, reviewing resource allocation, and recruiting international scholars – and adapting curriculum accordingly. There are differences between the older Imperial and newer regional universities. But, there is also a realisation that no HEI is immune, and that all must adopt an international strategy. Escalating intra-university competition for students, faculty, research funding, and sponsorship have already led to the demise of a number of small private universities. There is a strong view that others may suffer a similar fate or that mergers might occur. There is a palpable sense of change blowing across Japanese universities.

Their new autonomy is greeted with a mixture of apprehension and opportunity.


(1) Jun Oba (2007) ‘Incorporation of National Universities in Japan’. Asia Pacific Journal of Education, Vol. 27, No. 3.  pp291-303.

(2) Beerkens Blog. Higher Education, Science and Innovation from a Global Perspective.  

(3) OECD, Education at a Glance, 2007, p34.

(4) Adrian Wooldridge (2006) ‘The Battle for Brainpower’. The Economist. 5 October. Retrieved 15 May 2008.

(5) Atsuko Matsumoto and Kumiko Ono (2008) ‘The scramble for students’. The Daily Yomiuri, 31 May, p1.

(6) Scott Jaschik (2007) ‘The Mobile International Student’. Inside Higher Education. October 10. 

(7) Japan Student Services Organisation, International Students Statistics 2007

(8) On 1 April 2004, universities acquired the status of national university corporations. 

(9) Data provided by Akiyoshi Yonezawa from a survey by Tohoku University, authorized by the Ministry of Education (MEXT), and sent to the presidents of all Japanese universities, end 2007. Akiyoshi Yonezawa, Izumi Nakatsui and Tetsuo Kobayashi (2002) ‘University Rankings in Japan’, Higher Education in Europe, Vol. XXVII, No. 4. pp373-382.