The Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Ja­pan Univer­sity Rank­ings: is the qual­ity of teach­ing in Ja­pan’s top uni­ver­si­ties on a par with that of their re­search?

Elite Ja­panese uni­ver­si­ties are renowned for their strength in re­search, but does their rep­u­ta­tion also re­flect qual­ity in teach­ing? Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion’s stu­dent-fo­cused Ja­pan Univer­sity Rank­ings and stu­dent ex­pe­ri­ence sur­vey of­fer some fas­ci­nat­ing in

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS -

Do “top” uni­ver­si­ties pro­vide the best teach­ing? That ques­tion has long been moot, given the ex­tent to which in­sti­tu­tional rep­u­ta­tion is formed by re­search per­for­mance. The some­times sur­pris­ing re­sults of the UK’s teach­ing ex­cel­lence frame­work last year sug­gest that the con­nec­tion be­tween a high-rank­ing univer­sity and a good stu­dent ex­pe­ri­ence is cer­tainly not guar­an­teed.

In Ja­pan, the ques­tion is par­tic­u­larly sub­ject to de­bate given the coun­try’s un­for­tu­nate in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion for dis­cour­ag­ing crit­i­cal think­ing and cre­ativ­ity in its ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem. Few data ex­ist on teach­ing qual­ity in Ja­panese uni­ver­si­ties, but the Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Ja­pan Univer­sity Rank­ings, launched last year and re­peated this year, pro­vide some in­sights.

The rank­ing is mod­elled on the Wall Street Jour­nal/Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion US Col­lege Rank­ings, which were first pub­lished in 2016. Over­all scores are con­structed on the ba­sis of the same four “pil­lars” – re­sources, en­gage­ment, out­comes and en­vi­ron­ment; see method­ol­ogy on page 44 – all of which fo­cus pri­mar­ily on what in­sti­tu­tions of­fer stu­dents. In that re­spect, the rank­ings dif­fer con­sid­er­ably from THE’s World Univer­sity Rank­ings, which are pri­mar­ily in­formed by re­search data.

At first glance, com­par­ing the two rank­ings sug­gests that Ja­pan’s per­for­mance in teach­ing is not vastly dif­fer­ent from its per­for­mance in re­search. The Ja­pan rank­ings are headed by the Univer­sity of Tokyo and Ky­oto Univer­sity, which are also Ja­pan’s high­est-ranked rep­re­sen­ta­tives in the THE World Univer­sity Rank­ings, at num­bers 46 and joint 74th, re­spec­tively. Third is To­hoku Univer­sity, which is Ja­pan’s joint-third high­est rep­re­sen­ta­tive in the world rank­ings. And the coun­try’s fifth in the world rank­ings, the Tokyo In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, is fourth in the Ja­pan rank­ings, pro­duced in part­ner­ship with Ja­panese ed­u­ca­tion com­pany Be­nesse.

How­ever, in pre­par­ing this year’s rank­ings, THE also di­rectly sur­veyed un­der­grad­u­ates at Ja­panese in­sti­tu­tions about teach­ing at their uni­ver­si­ties. The sur­vey – which was car­ried out on a trial ba­sis and does not feed into the main rank­ings this year – as­sesses op­por­tu­ni­ties for in­ter­act­ing with fac­ulty, as well as the ex­tent to which teach­ing chal­lenges stu­dents, en­hances their crit­i­cal think­ing and helps them see con­nec­tions be­tween dif­fer­ent as­pects of their cour­ses and ap­ply their learn­ing to the real world. It also ex­am­ines whether uni­ver­si­ties seek sug­ges­tions for im­prove­ments from stu­dents and act on them, and whether stu­dents would rec­om­mend their in­sti­tu­tions to fam­ily and friends.

The re­sults of the sur­vey will be pub­lished later this year, but an early look at the data sug­gests that Ja­panese stu­dents are crit­i­cal of the qual­ity of their teach­ing. It also re­veals that some of Ja­pan’s top in­sti­tu­tions fall down when it comes to many as­pects of teach­ing. Tokyo and Ky­oto, for ex­am­ple, are the worst in­sti­tu­tions out of the 87 sur­veyed at sup­port­ing stu­dents to ap­ply their knowl­edge to the real world.

In fact, all of Ja­pan’s top 10 uni­ver­si­ties over­all per­form par­tic­u­larly badly on this as­pect of teach­ing. The in­sti­tu­tions highly ranked in the main rank­ings also score poorly on the ex­tent to which they chal­lenge stu­dents, foster a sense of com­mu­nity and pro­vide stu­dents with op­por­tu­ni­ties to in­ter­act with fac­ulty.

Among the coun­try’s elite, the Univer­sity of Tsukuba stands out as of­fer­ing the best-qual­ity teach­ing across all the met­rics in the stu­dent ex­pe­ri­ence sur­vey. It is the only in­sti­tu­tion highly ranked in the main sur­vey to break into

the top 25, when the re­sults of the sur­vey are amal­ga­mated into a rank­ing. And it scores par­tic­u­larly well com­pared with its top 10 peers for stu­dent in­ter­ac­tion with fac­ulty, the chal­leng­ing na­ture of its teach­ing and the sup­port that it gives stu­dents to re­flect on or make con­nec­tions be­tween ed­u­ca­tional con­tent.

Tokyo and Hokkaido Univer­sity are the only other in­sti­tu­tions highly placed in the Ja­pan rank­ings to come any­where near the top on spe­cific as­pects of the stu­dent ex­pe­ri­ence, with both scor­ing above av­er­age on de­vel­op­ing crit­i­cal think­ing.

By con­trast, Ja­pan’s in­ter­na­tional uni­ver­si­ties, which teach many of their cour­ses in English, per­form strongly in the sur­vey. Akita

Stu­dent choice has never been pri­mar­ily driven by ac­tual or per­ceived teach­ing qual­ity, learn­ing achieve­ment or sat­is­fac­tion with ser­vices or fa­cil­i­ties

In­ter­na­tional Univer­sity (12th in the main Ja­pan rank­ings), the In­ter­na­tional Chris­tian Univer­sity (16th) and Rit­sumeikan Asia Pa­cific Univer­sity (joint 21st) do par­tic­u­larly well in ar­eas such as com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween staff and stu­dents. This may partly be ex­plained by the na­ture of such in­sti­tu­tions, which work to pre­pare stu­dents for a global mar­ket­place that is com­pet­i­tive, and value skills such as crit­i­cal think­ing.

By con­trast, the lo­cal job mar­ket in Ja­pan is more fo­cused on the rep­u­ta­tion of the uni­ver­si­ties that grad­u­ates at­tended than on the skills or knowl­edge that they gained there. This may ex­plain why, for all their ap­par­ent fail­ings in teach­ing qual­ity, stu­dents

at the high­est-ranked uni­ver­si­ties still typ­i­cally say that they would rec­om­mend them to oth­ers. Tokyo, Ky­oto and To­hoku have some of the big­gest dis­par­i­ties be­tween the per­ceived qual­ity of their teach­ing and their stu­dents’ like­li­hood to rec­om­mend them.

Si­mon Mar­gin­son, pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional higher ed­u­ca­tion at the UCL In­sti­tute of Ed­u­ca­tion, says that such a phe­nom­e­non is not un­com­mon in coun­tries with com­pet­i­tive and hi­er­ar­chi­cal higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems. “Stu­dent choice has never been pri­mar­ily driven by ac­tual or per­ceived teach­ing qual­ity, learn­ing achieve­ment or sat­is­fac­tion with ser­vices or fa­cil­i­ties,” he says. In­stead, the sta­tus of the univer­sity and de­gree course and the sense of how the pro­gramme leads to a ca­reer are more im­por­tant.

Mar­gin­son is “wary of play­ing into” the nar­ra­tive that Ja­panese uni­ver­si­ties are poor at teach­ing crit­i­cal think­ing, not­ing that the Or­gan­i­sa­tion for Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment’s Pisa rank­ing of school-level ed­u­ca­tion shows that East Asian coun­tries do “rel­a­tively well on crit­i­cal think­ing and prob­lem-solv­ing”. Re­cent ed­u­ca­tional re­forms in Ja­pan, South Korea and China have also pushed im­por­tant themes around “fos­ter­ing in­di­vid­u­al­ity, crit­i­cal­ity and stu­dents who speak up in class”, he adds – although he ad­mits that this has been less of a fo­cus in higher ed­u­ca­tion.

But Devin Ste­wart, se­nior pro­gramme di­rec­tor and se­nior fel­low at the Carnegie Coun­cil for Ethics in In­ter­na­tional Af­fairs in New York City, says that while there is some de­gree of “lip ser­vice” paid to crit­i­cal think­ing in Ja­pan, “it is not be­ing taught as much as it should be”. His own re­search sug­gests that the em­pha­sis in Ja­panese ed­u­ca­tion re­mains on mem­o­ri­sa­tion and obe­di­ence. “In the US, the re­ceived wis­dom is to ques­tion ev­ery­thing. In Ja­pan, it is the op­po­site,” he says. “They there­fore risk fall­ing be­hind in the 21st-cen­tury econ­omy.”

Ja­pan has the high­est level of debt of all coun­tries in the OECD and its uni­ver­si­ties have been bat­tling chronic un­der­fund­ing since the early 1990s, Ste­wart says. They are strug­gling to in­ter­na­tion­alise, and their re­search stand­ing, in terms of the num­ber of aca­demic pa­pers and highly cited jour­nal ar­ti­cles pro­duced, is in de­cline.

Take­hido Kariya, pro­fes­sor in the so­ci­ol­ogy of Ja­panese so­ci­ety at the Univer­sity of

Ox­ford, says that the cur­ric­u­lar struc­ture in Ja­panese uni­ver­si­ties is very dif­fer­ent from that of coun­tries where crit­i­cal think­ing is a key tenet of higher ed­u­ca­tion. Stu­dents usu­ally reg­is­ter for 12 to 15 dif­fer­ent sub­jects per term but do not nec­es­sar­ily at­tend all classes. “Most of those classes are lec­tures, with a few read­ing as­sign­ments and writ­ing es­says, mean­ing stu­dents just sit in a large lec­ture room to lis­ten to lec­tures and to take notes, with­out any prepa­ra­tions or any as­signed works af­ter­wards,” he says.

“This kind of lec­ture-cen­tred teach­ing style has de­vel­oped un­der the fi­nan­cially re­stricted con­di­tions of higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions in Ja­pan, most of which are poorly funded pri­vate in­sti­tu­tions,” Kariya adds.

If you take Ja­panese uni­ver­si­ties as a whole, the scores that they re­ceive for teach­ing in the stu­dent sur­vey are strik­ingly lower than the scores that US uni­ver­si­ties re­ceive in the stu­dent ex­pe­ri­ence sur­vey that feeds into the THE/Wall Street Jour­nal US Col­lege Rank­ings, which fea­tures many of the same ques­tions. The dis­par­i­ties are par­tic­u­larly strik­ing when it comes to uni­ver­si­ties’ will­ing­ness to seek and act on stu­dent sug­ges­tions (see graph page 38-39).

More­over, the greater spread of scores in Ja­pan sug­gests that teach­ing qual­ity is less con­sis­tent – or, al­ter­na­tively, that there is less con­sen­sus among stu­dents as to what good teach­ing looks like.

This year’s main Ja­pan rank­ings in­tro­duces ad­di­tional met­rics on the ex­tent of in­ter­na­tion­al­i­sa­tion in uni­ver­si­ties, based on how many classes are taught in a for­eign lan­guage and the ex­tent of in­ter­na­tional ex­change pro­grammes. Next year, THE will also in­te­grate the re­sults of the stu­dent sur­vey into the main rank­ings – a move that could shake up the ex­ist­ing hi­er­ar­chies in Ja­panese higher ed­u­ca­tion and stim­u­late some hard think­ing among univer­sity lead­ers and pol­i­cy­mak­ers.

But, how­ever much Ja­pan may cur­rently be lan­guish­ing, Mar­gin­son is con­vinced that all is not lost. He in­sists that it is well within the na­tion’s ca­pac­ity to em­u­late “pre­vi­ous pe­ri­ods of great na­tion-build­ing in higher ed­u­ca­tion”, be­tween 1870 and 1910, and be­tween 1960 and 1990.

“Ja­pan is an im­mensely ca­pa­ble coun­try in terms of pub­lic and pri­vate in­tel­li­gence,” he notes. “If it de­cides to re­new the higher ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor, it will do so very quickly…His­tory never stands still.”

The pres­tige firms still hire grad­u­ates based on a univer­sity’s rep­u­ta­tion, and fairs such as this one in Chiba City re­flect the highly com­pet­i­tive jobs mar­ket

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