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Higher and Business Education in Japan: peculiarities and challenges for the future of leadership in Asia

Since the end of WW2 up to a few years ago, Japan had been by far the Asian country with the most educated population. Leveraging on a pre-existing outstanding level of literacy and a small number of elite universities (the University of Tokyo among all), Japan could further the efficacy of its higher education through a thorough investment in research by the Government and a close cooperation between the industrial sectors and universities. Conversely, a higher integration had meant a consistent participation of the population in tertiary education: according to OECD as of 2011, 96% of people aged 25-46 had graduated from secondary education, and 46% had completed a university-level course. The last is the highest figure among OECD countries after Canada and Israel.

While very efficient in linking graduates with the Japanese industrial structure, this system has however never really attempted to provide students with an international attitude or to compare its educational standards with those of other advanced countries.

Quite pragmatically, Japan higher and business education had been serving the needs of a market rigidly divided into a broad internal front and an external interface represented by few and big names. While an international education could be, and actually was, provided to workers in the second tier - through attendance of MBA in the USA or overseas assignments – no need there was for the rest of the companies to hire or train global resources. Moreover, the structure of lifelong, seniority-base employment that was prevalent until the end of the century also meant a marked stress on training-on-the-job and a clear departure from specialized education, thus diverging from the typically hyper-specialized, role-based system that lately spread from the USA to the rest of the advanced countries. With the advent of the recent wave of globalization, such a system has struggled to keep the pace of more aggressive international competitors in Asia.

It is therefore no surprise that the recently published Global Competitiveness Report puts Japan Business Education at the 72th position globally while placing Singapore at sixth and Hong Kong at 14th. However, how does Japan score in general higher education against its peers?

Despite being one of the most advanced countries in the World, global university rankings consistently display very few Japanese institutions. As of October, the new Times Higher Education Global Ranking features one Japanese university in the top 50. While the University of Tokyo still stands as the top Asian institution, its mark on “International Outlook” is among the lowest, a doubtful leadership shared with the other four Japanese institutions in the top 200 globally.

Mastership of English among the faculty and students may not be the only factor, but it is worth noting that, as of 2013, the average score for TOEFL iBT was 70 over 120. This is the lowest among G20 countries with the exception of Saudi Arabia, and far lower than China, Korea and Singapore levels. This arguably makes voluntary attempts at fostering cultural and technological exchanges difficult.

Since quality of higher and business education is going to influence the economic outcome in the middle-to-long term, it is probable that the year of Tokyo Olympics will see a harsher fight for the leadership in a globalized Asia.

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