Changing the conversation: how academic research is supporting Japanese education policy

The discourse surrounding Japan’s 'Super Global University' scheme has led to a significant shift in approach to education policy in the country. Critical assessment of this scheme has challenged the Ministry of Education to consider using evidence-based research as a foundation for future policy-making.

The 21st century has seen the global higher education environment become increasingly competitive. International university rankings are hotly contested, with institutions seeking to attract high calibre students from overseas in greater numbers than ever before.

In a bid to raise the rankings of Japanese Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in global league tables, the Japanese government launched its 'Super Global University' scheme in 2008. This government-funded initiative hoped to improve Japan’s ‘international outlook’ scores by incentivising institutions to fulfil certain criteria, including the number of classes taught in English and the number of 'global scholars' working there.

An academic analysis of higher education policy

Professor Takehiko Kariya (Nissan Institute of Japanese Studies), a sociologist of education whose work provides alternative views on Japanese education policies, turned his attention to the Super Global University scheme when it began.

His academic background and long-standing interest in the use of evidence-based research to inform policy-making gave him a particular interest in the scheme and its potential outcomes. Working at the University of Oxford gave him a unique perspective on the Western models that the scheme drew much influence from.

Professor Kariya provided a critical assessment of the scheme’s efforts to globalise their HEIs in a similar way to Western institutions. He argued that these countries have a unique position, and that trying to emulate their model would be ineffective and potentially harmful.

Kariya’s research also found that the scheme overlooked important elements, meaning outcomes were unlikely to be successful. For example, HEIs were encouraged to recruit 'global scholars', but it transpired that 40% of their quota was made up of Japanese academics who had spent a total of two years abroad on sabbatical. Funding, which was spread thinly between many institutions, was also not sufficient for high calibre appointments.

These findings, plus more besides, showed how the scheme ought to be more carefully considered in the light of Japan’s unique circumstances. Professor Kariya’s research implied that policymakers needed a more nuanced understanding of the reasons behind the success of universities in English-speaking countries such as the UK and USA, and that policies handed out ambitious targets without giving institutions the funding needed to achieve them.

Influencing at policy level

Kariya’s research featured in discussions that took place in the Central Council of Education of MEXT (the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology) which is the primary policy-making committee for education policy in Japan. During the Council’s discussions around how Japan should shape a new model for higher education, Kariya’s ideas were discussed and he was cited by name – a rare occurrence in Japanese policymaking, especially for an academic based abroad.

His work went on to influence the MEXT Central Council’s summary of a policy report 'Grand Design for Higher Education in 2040' (2019). The former Vice Minister of MEXT said: 'Specifically, his empirical research impacted on our discussions about how to reconstruct overall HEIs curricula and reorganise students learning activities.'

Professor Kariya’s work also resonated with higher education leaders, and has influenced their thinking around the globalisation of their sector. He was invited by the President of Tsudajuku University to deliver the keynote speech at a symposium organised by the Association of Private Universities of Japan.

The President commented: 'Kariya provided an insightful perspective that relativizes the perception of educational power inherent in the problems of accreditation and internal quality assurance that are being promoted in Japanese universities under the guise of ‘reform’.'

Ongoing impact and influence

The Super Global University scheme has since been replaced by a new initiative. The government’s latest approach focuses funding on a smaller selection of top universities. These institutions are incentivised with deregulation, as well as financial incentives – measures include greater flexibility to work with external companies, and more control over internal pay scales.

Increasingly, the Ministry of Education recognises the value of empirical research in policy-making, and seeks independent academic input to strengthen its recommendations. Professor Kariya is now working with his team to research what happens in Japanese schools during the pandemic – this time the research has been funded by the Ministry of Education.

Professor Kariya credits the empirical nature of his research and its neutrality for helping create a foundation of trust with policymakers. He says: 'Having empirical research commissioned in this way is new for education policy in Japan. It is the first time sociologists have been engaged in the policy making process based on their empirically researched evidence.'