July 24, 2016 1:00 pm JST

Latest university ranking leaves Japanese academia skeptical

YOSHIO NAGATA, Nikkei senior staff writer, and TAKURO KUSASHIO, Nikkei staff writer

National University of Singapore

TOKYO/OSAKA -- Japanese universities are casting a sterner eye on an Asiawide ranking of universities now that they have fallen down the ladder in the latest one.

Representatives of the universities say the ranking does not accurately reflect their schools' qualities and that they fear it could convince prospective students to go elsewhere.

Like any other ranking, this one helps consumers, in this case prospective students, make a choice. But there is a lot more than that riding on it.

According to the Times Higher Education Asia University Rankings 2016, released in June, the University of Tokyo fell to seventh place -- from first place last year. Other Japanese universities also fell.

The National University of Singapore took the No. 1 spot, up from No. 2 last year. Chinese and South Korean universities also ranked high.

A new evaluation method contributed a lot to the changes. While the same categories, or "indicators," were kept, how each contributed to the total score was altered. Reputation surveys on teaching and research quality last year combined to account for 33% of the total score but 25% this year. This dealt a blow to the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University, which have good reputations among foreign researchers.

Meanwhile, income from industry-related activities was given three times more weight than last year, accounting for 7.5% of the total score. This pushed up the rankings of Chinese universities, which have joined hands with Beijing and Chinese companies to boost income.

Hideo Hosono, a material research professor of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, said the new methodology does not accurately reflect universities' research ability, given competitive patents and other indicators are not gauged.

Research University 11, a consortium of Japan's top 11 universities, issued a statement earlier this month that the Times Higher Education ranking should not be used to determine national policy or as an achievement indicator.

Another umbrella group, the Research University Network of Japan, which includes universities and research institutions, has opposed the ranking every year Japanese universities have taken big tumbles.

University officials get nervous about rankings, which can affect a school's popularity among foreign students and how much government money it gets. "I think it is worrisome," Hosono said, "should university rankings encourage outstanding Asian students not to choose Japanese universities."

The global university ranking began as a way to help students choose where to study abroad. More students began studying overseas in the 2000s as cross-border economic activity expanded and emerging economies blossomed.

The Times Higher Education survey is considered one of the big three global university rankings. QS Quacquarelli Symonds, a London-based education and career consultancy that is also considered one of the big three, includes "reputation of university staff" in its methodology. Shanghai Jiao Tong University, which began its own global ranking at the behest of the Chinese government, includes the number of graduates who have won Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals." Consequently, U.S. and U.K. universities dominate these rankings.

Times Higher Education and QS are facing a backlash from researchers decrying their business model -- they provide consulting services to universities that want to rank higher.

So achieving a higher ranking does not necessarily correlate with providing better educations and research opportunities.

For some universities, there is another worry -- politics. The Japanese government in 2013 said it would aim to ensure that Japanese universities rank among the world's top 100 over the following decade. Now, Japanese universities are required to develop specific strategies to help the government reach this "revitalization" goal.

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