International Competitiveness of Universities in a Global Age

University of Tokyo Strives to Raise its Global Profile


The University of Tokyo (UTokyo) is consistently ranked among the world’s top universities. But far from resting on its laurels, UTokyo is doing its utmost to raise its global competitiveness. This article looks at some of its recent initiatives toward that end.

Global Competition Among Universities

Internationalization is nothing new for the University of Tokyo (UTokyo), although it remains a vitally important initiative. The university’s research activities have always been at the forefront of all the universities around the world. UTokyo is consistently ranked in the top 15 according to the “World Reputation Rankings” published by the Times Higher Education. And its alumni include eight Nobel Prize laureates and a Fields Medal recipient. Since the 1970s, UTokyo has been striving to globalize its educational programs. For instance, its Department of Civil Engineering has been offering courses in English for international students since 1982.

But now the global push has entered a new stage. Governments around the world are looking to their own universities as a driver for enhancing competitiveness. And there is a greater need than ever for the highly skilled personnel capable of playing an active role on the global stage. With students and researchers becoming increasingly mobile, universities around the world are competing fiercely to attract the top talent. UTokyo is no exception, and there is no room for complacency in its effort to globalize itself further.

2014 World Reputation Rankings

1 Harvard University
2 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
3 Stanford University
4 University of Cambridge
5 University of Oxford
6 University of California, Berkeley
7 Princeton University
8 Yale University
9 California Institute of Technology
10 University of California, Los Angeles
11 University of Tokyo

Source: “World Reputation Rankings” of the Times Higher Education

Fostering Global Research

Globally renowned physicist Murayama Hitoshi is the director of the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe (Kavli IPMU), which brings together some of the world’s top mathematicians, physicists, and astronomers to conduct research aimed at unlocking the mysteries of the universe. Professor Murayama does his utmost to assist foreign researchers at Kavli IPMU to make the adjustment to life in Japan.

In 2011, UTokyo launched its Todai Institutes for Advanced Studies (TODIAS), aimed at building a dynamic system for cutting-edge, interdisciplinary research. (Todai is an abbreviation for the University of Tokyo.) The first research unit for this system is the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe (Kavli IPMU), which was launched in 2007 (the name “Kavli” was added in 2012 after the institute received funding the same year from the US-based Kavli Foundation).

Under its director Professor Murayama Hitoshi, who teaches at both UTokyo and the University of California at Berkeley, Kavli IPMU has engaged in research that focuses on the origins and future of the universe. Out of the institute’s 79 researchers, 57% come from countries outside of Japan.

The second TODIAS research unit is the Integrated Research System (IR3S). Founded in 2005 as UTokyo’s first interdisciplinary organization, the IR3S engages in research in such fields as climate change and biodiversity, with the aim of contributing to building a sustainable society. It has an alliance with the United Nations University, and regularly publishes an international journal titled Sustainability Science .

UTokyo is also actively pursuing collaboration with overseas research institutes. In January 2014, the Max Planck—The University of Tokyo Center for Integrative Inflammology became one of 12 centers worldwide affiliated with the Max Planck Institute, a renowned German scientific research organization. Furthermore, a research team headed by the UTokyo professors Kobayashi Tomio and Asai Yoshihito were integral to the ATLAS experiment conducted at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), which contributed to the research on the Higgs particle that earned the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics.

If all of the joint research projects of UTokyo organizations or researchers are taken into consideration, it totals hundreds of universities and research institutes and over 40 overseas locations. In 2013, UTokyo entered into a university-wide strategic partnership with Princeton University. It is also engaged in university-wide research and educational exchanges with such institutes of higher education as Yale University, Seoul National University, Peking University, Tsinghua University, and the University of São Paolo.

Globalization means enhancing the diversity and mobility of researchers. As of May 2013, international researchers at UTokyo accounted for 8.9% of the total number of researchers. And in the 2012 academic year 10,435 UTokyo researchers were sent overseas, a 50% increase over the 6,797 researchers in 2003. The number of foreign researchers coming to UTokyo also increased by nearly 60%, from 2,203 in 2003 to 3,524 in 2012.

Nurturing Globally Minded Students

The Charter of the University of Tokyo states that it will "nurture people of leadership qualities who possess an international character.” In particular, the university emphasizes the educational principle of making students more global and resilient, and aims to cultivate human resources that can perform on the global stage as well as hone their leadership skills through friendly competition among diverse people and cultures.

UTokyo undergraduates take liberal arts courses during their first two years and then, during their third and fourth years take specialized courses in their specific departments. Compared to other universities in Japan, relatively few UTokyo students participate in study abroad programs in their first two years because of, among other factors, the concern it might have an impact on the course of their studies or the mismatch of the academic calendar. In response to this situation, UTokyo has begun offering students short-term international programs, such as summer programs by the International Alliance of Research Universities and other international groups, short-term study abroad programs at leading international universities, and summer programs arranged by UTokyo faculty members.

Although many UTokyo academic faculties and schools already offered study abroad programs for a semester or full year, in 2010 UTokyo put in place a university-wide exchange program that allows students in any school to participate, providing more students with opportunities to study abroad.

UTokyo has also introduced a diverse array of opportunities for students to gain overseas experience, including volunteer activities and internships, through study abroad fairs and the Go Global website. The university also provides various experiential learning opportunities in partnership with outside organizations and alumni. For example, in March 2013, 32 UTokyo students engaged in short-term volunteer activities in Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Tanzania thanks to cooperation from the Japan International Cooperation Agency.

A guide for students published by UTokyo on the topic of study abroad and academic exchanges.

UTokyo plans to achieve a long-term goal of having all of its students gain international experience during their undergraduate years. More specifically, it aims to have around 10% to 15% of students earning credits through overseas study, 20% to 35% gaining short-term overseas experience (e.g., summer schools, internships, etc.), and the remaining students engaging in some kind of international learning experience through exchanges with international students on the campus or courses taught in English.

UTokyo introduced the Active Learning of English for Science Students program in 2008 for first- and second-year science majors within the liberal arts curriculum in order to enhance their English skills. The program feature small class sizes and native speaking instructors, and students write essays and give presentations in English. In April 2013, UTokyo expanded the program to include students majoring in humanities and social science by launching the Active Learning of English for Students of the Arts program, which offers classes streamed according to proficiency.

In the 2014 academic year, UTokyo will begin offering its Trilingual Program to students that meet specific requirements for English ability; this is a special academic program to nurture human resources fluent in not only Japanese and English but also Chinese and other third languages. Plans also call for a special cross-disciplinary program to be introduced in April 2016 for selected third- and fourth-year students with high motivation and strong linguistic skills in order to foster future global leaders. The program include overseas study and aims to provide high level academic skills needed to thrive globally as well as practical skills needed to solve problems in the real world.

Courses Offered in English to Increase International Students

Every year, UTokyo accepts students from over 100 countries around the world. As of May 2013, the university had 2,912 international students, making up 10.4% of the total student body. Most of these students are enrolled in graduate schools, where international students account for 18.9% of graduate enrollment. More than 80% of the international students at UTokyo are from Asian countries; 8.1% are from Europe; 2.5% from North America and from Central and South America respectively; and 1.8% from the Middle East. As for individual countries, Chinese students number the most, followed by South Koreans, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Indonesians, and Americans.

A pamphlet for foreign students interested in studying at UTokyo.

UTokyo has doubled the number of graduate level courses taught entirely in English as result of “Global 30” Project for Establishing a University Network for Internationalization by Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology; at present there are 37 such courses offered at 10 graduate schools. At the undergraduate level, UTokyo set up its Programs in English at Komaba (PEAK) in October 2012. Admission to these programs is based on essays and interviews, similar to the admission process at US and European universities. In the first year, 27 students from 11 countries were accepted into PEAK.

UTokyo’s Graduate School of Public Policy, established in 2004, offers double degree programs, whereby students can earn degrees from UTokyo and one of its partner institutions, which include Columbia University, Paris Institute of Political Studies, and the National University of Singapore. Also, starting in 2011, UTokyo initiated its Campus Asia Program in tandem with Peking University and Seoul National University; this program allows participating students to take classes at all three universities and earn degrees at one or two of the institutuions.

Introduction of Four-Term System and Educational Reform

UTokyo considered adjusting its academic year to enroll students in the autumn, as more than 70% of universities around the world do, rather than in April, so as to facilitate international exchanges of researchers and students. In the spring of 2011, UTokyo began investigating the feasibility of this change. It also explored the possibility of shifting the academic calendar in tandem with other Japanese universities. It concluded, however, that it was premature to switch to autumn enrollment at this point since the current March graduation is tied to the timing for new graduate hiring by Japanese corporations and government ministries, as well as national examinations for such professions as law and medicine.

UTokyo will maintain its April matriculation for now, but aim to introduce a new four-term system in April 2015. Along with dividing its current two semester academic year into four terms, the university will adjust its summer holiday to the period between June and August. This change would allow students to participate in summer programs at overseas universities or combine their vacation with the following term so that they could study abroad for half the year. It would also make it easier for international students or researchers who are interested in coming to UTokyo.

During its early days, the University of Tokyo used to invite professors from overseas and enroll students in September. This lasted over forty years, from the time of the university’s foundation until 1921, when it changed to the current April matriculation. By that time, most subjects were taught by Japanese professors using Japanese language textbooks for instruction, even at the graduate level. Today, there are few countries in Asia where graduate level education can be conducted using textbooks written in their own languages, and many Asian students pursue graduate studies abroad. Those graduate students have returned home after receiving PhDs overseas, which has helped the internationalization of many Asian universities. In the case of UTokyo, many of its faculty members received PhDs at UTokyo. This is strong testament to the high level of research at the university, but it is also a weakness because UTokyo has a relatively low proportion of faculty members from foreign countries or who earned their degrees overseas, weakening diversity. The past success of higher education in Japan may have become a fetter to globalization of Japanese universities.

But raising the level of education to global standards will require more than just adjusting the academic calendar by changing the matriculation date or altering vacations; it is also necessary to improve the content of education and teaching methods so that UTokyo can compete globally with other leading universities. In order to achieve that aim, UTokyo is engaged in a comprehensive, university-wide effort to improve its level of education, with a focus on encouraging active learning and improving the quality and quantity of learning. This reform to improve education at UTokyo involves taking a fresh look at the curriculum, system of student evaluation, entrance examinations, and other aspects, while at the same time enhancing faculty development.

Strategic Public Relations: Dissemination of Research Results and MOOC

The ability to promote itself overseas is important to UTokyo’s effort to enhance its global competitiveness, and the university is promoting strategic initiatives toward that end. In particular, UTokyo is striving to communicate to researchers overseas the outstanding results of its research.

In 2011, the university launched the UTokyo Research website, with articles in English and Japanese showcasing the latest cutting-edge research being carried out at UTokyo. In November 2013, the university also hosted the UTokyo Forum in Chile and Brazil, and over 100 researchers and graduate students traveling to both countries. This is an example of the international events the university has been hosting since 2000 in order to make the results of scholarly research at UTokyo better known and to promote academic exchanges with other major universities.

Since 2012, the Massive Open Online Courses offered by many universities have increased rapidly around the world; in the autumn of 2013 UTokyo offered via the Coursera website a course on astrophysics (Professor Murayama Hitoshi) and a course on political science (Professor Fujiwara Kiichi). Over 80,000 people in 150 countries participated in these two English-language courses, of whom 5,383 received a certificate of completion.

But the university faces some challenges in terms of promoting itself, including the rather low “brand” awareness among its own students and faculty, who use a variety of names and abbreviations to refer to the institute of higher learning in English, including: Tokyo University, Todai, and UT. In response to this confusion, the university began to formulate a brand strategy in 2011, and decided to use “UTokyo” as the standard abbreviation, based on the broad existing recognition of the place name “Tokyo.”

Sticking to Its Own Global Strategy

The renowned “World University Rankings” of the Times Higher Education bases its evaluation of research prowess mainly on the number of academic papers published in international journals, and its evaluation of the level of education on the student-teacher ratio. These two points may have been chosen for the ranking because of the difficulty of making global comparisons of universities on other bases, but, whatever the case may be, it only comprises one aspect of a university’s research and education, rather than providing the full picture. The rankings do not reflect, for instance, the books that a professor of social science or the humanities might write every few years to present his or her findings. Moreover, academic papers that are written in languages other than English, no matter how outstanding, also do not impact the ranking. The method of ranking global profile also gives an advantage to universities in the English-speaking world, which have always had a higher percentage of foreign students and faculty members. Indeed, for the World University Ranking conducted for the 2013–14 academic year, only 7 of the top 50 universities listed were located in non-English-speaking countries (UTokyo ranked twenty-third overall and second among those seven universities).

Another ranking, the World Reputation Rankings, which is based on peer reviews among thousands of university researchers worldwide, generally ranks UTokyo around eighth or ninth place every year. This attests to the solid reputation that the university’s research has earned among researchers overseas.

Although that ranking is often referred to as an index of a university’s global competitiveness, it does not necessarily accurately reflect the reality. Instead of worrying too much about the ranking, UTokyo should steadily pursue its own medium-term strategic plan aimed at raising its global profile; this is the surest path toward enhancing its own global competitiveness.

(Originally published in Japanese on February 10, 2014. English version revised on March 17, 2014. Photographs courtesy of the University of Tokyo.)

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