Ex-Stanford president says Japan's universities need to get priorities straight

October 10, 2012


In the face of global competition in research, several of Japan’s top institutions have chosen to "streamline" their undergraduate programs, cut back on their liberal arts education and focus instead on technical disciplines.

That's a mistake, says former Stanford President Gerhard Casper, who turned his financially strapped institution into a higher education global brand--currently No. 2 in a world university ranking behind Harvard University.

“In China, there’s lots of targeted research going on, but in order to be an innovative culture, you need students who will challenge accepted wisdom and not just excel in technical fields," says Casper, 74. "As long as they’re not there, chances to become great are limited.”

In September, Casper appeared as a panelist at the Stanford Kyoto Trans-Asian Dialogue 2012, discussing among other topics the shifting terrain of higher education in Asia, as regional universities seek to modernize amid an influx of branch campuses of Western universities.

The former Stanford president is well-qualified to talk about improving Japanese higher education. Stanford boasts an Asia-Pacific Research Center--of which Casper is currently head--that contains a program in Japanese studies.

Competition is high for the world’s most talented students, yet Japan’s top seat of learning--the University of Tokyo--ranks only number 20 on the 2012 Academic Ranking of World Universities (conducted by researchers at the Center for World-Class Universities of Shanghai Jiao Tong University and better known as the Shanghai Rankings).

Only four Asian universities are ranked among the top 100--all of them in Japan (in addition to the University of Tokyo, Kyoto University is No. 26; Osaka University, 83; Nagoya University, 96).

“Anyone who knows me knows I am critical of rankings, but occasionally they can give suggestions” of where things are going, says Casper, speaking in Tokyo after serving as a panelist in Kyoto. “The rankings don’t suggest to me that Japan will be bypassed quickly. There’s enough of a culture of learning and research that has been cherished, that will make it possible for Japan to remain an important player.”

Casper, however, says that Japan needs to get its priorities straight. Despite generous grants and incentives, the percentage of overseas students at Japanese universities is static and small--about 5 percent. The funds could be better spent enticing more Japanese students to go abroad..

Having foreign students in your university is imperative, says Casper, for the stimuli and connections they foster. But in Japan’s case, “it’s more important to be sending Japanese students abroad for at least a year to expose themselves to other environments where they can see how others in the world see Japan. Yet the fact is that no one gives them credit for having done such a risky thing as study elsewhere. I’m amazed by how Japanese students are almost shunned and denied the credit for their foreign experience.”

The number of Japanese college students studying overseas dropped by 28 percent, from 82,900 in 2004 to 59,900 in 2009, according to figures put out by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. In the United States, the number of Japanese scholars has fallen to half of what it was during the peak year of 1997.

Japanese students, says Casper, have become something of a rarity even at Stanford University, one of the most Far East-leaning in the world.

The German-born political scientist is credited with reviving Stanford and turning it into a prestigious destination for foreign students. He oversaw restoration of the damaged campus after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, pulled in more funds from alumni worldwide and increased levels of financial aid.

In doing so, he significantly upped the institute’s name value, especially among Asian and Asian-American families (roughly 24 percent of the undergraduate class identify themselves as members of such).

Instead of pointing to his own efforts, though, Casper offers a project being pursued by his alma mater, Yale University, as a portent of what’s possible in Asia. The Ivy League institution is working with the National University of Singapore College (in a venture called Yale-NUS) that will offer a four-year liberal arts curriculum in English as early as next year. The project is controversial, given the mismatch of Western values espoused by Yale and the model autocracy that is the city-state of Singapore.

Casper has no direct hand in the project. Yet a decade ago he accepted a private dinner invitation from then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who was sounding out ways to improve the Singaporean higher education system.

“He believed that Singapore could not survive unless it became a hub of innovation,” says Casper. “He also concluded they could never manage to become so with their present structure--top down, hierarchical, with students taking notes and eager to repeat to the professor what he had just said.” In 2000 Singapore began a systematic evaluation of its public universities, four of which have since been granted a form of autonomy.

Japanese universities, likewise, have been given a freer hand to make programs more relevant and attractive on the world stage.

Students from South Korea, Taiwan, Chinese and other neighboring countries have struggled to enter Japanese universities, having to learn Japanese to do so.

Yet Ivy League branch campuses opening in the region, teaching in the world’s lingua franca, English, could change that dynamic.

Japanese administrators have taken notice: In one example, the University of Tokyo this month started two new undergraduate bachelor of arts programs, an International Program on Japan in East Asia and an International Program on Environmental Sciences, both to be taught entirely in English.

The idea, says Casper, needs to spread.

--Gerhard Casper is currently the director of Stanford University's Freeman Spogli Institute of International Studies, parent organization of Asia-Pacific Research Center.

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Gerhard Casper, former head of Stanford University, during a recent visit to Tokyo (Louis Templado)

Gerhard Casper, former head of Stanford University, during a recent visit to Tokyo (Louis Templado)

  • Gerhard Casper, former head of Stanford University, during a recent visit to Tokyo (Louis Templado)

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