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
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