Sam Nakane, Chairman of the Tokyo University of Science, outlines the transformation that is happening in Japan’s education sector and why he wants all his 20,000 students to spend at least one year studying in the US.
We are here because Japan is going through an exciting moment. There have been many reforms enacted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in what has been known as Abenomics. We’d like to know how the Abenomics reforms are affecting the education sector, what is your perspective of these reforms?
I would say Prime Minister Abe’s objective is to push the Japanese education system to be among the premier systems in the world.
I see some actions have been taken in the past couple of years, however they have yet to be executed or completed, it’s a moving concern, and he’s been very honest, very anxious to move it forward.
You say that a lot of these intended reforms have not come to fruition?
Changing management is a big the challenge. Today there are brilliant people and an unlimited number of very smart people around the globe.
They can make great strategies, great plans; but many of these plans are not yet executed or implemented. Japan’s mobility is very low.
We are very slow making strategic changes, so we continue to struggle towards our future targets and goals.
Educationally, Japan used to be the predominant destination in Northeast Asia. Now, there’s very strong competition from universities in China and South Korea, which are gaining in the international rankings. What is Japan doing to stay on top? I’d like to know what Japan is doing presently as a vision for the future to preserve and increase the status of its universities in the global rankings.
First of all, the number of Japanese students going abroad is decreasing. In the past 20 years, the Japanese economy has been shrinking; as a result, significant restructuring occurred in many corporations.
Fathers got laid off, so the mothers became very conservative when it came to encouraging their children’s future. Instead of encouraging them to branch out, they advised their children to take a safer path.
Now, Abenomics is having a positive impact on the economic rebound, which is motivating a return. I think the people will start to be motivated to be more aggressive, and to make more dynamic plans for themselves.
Here at TUS, I have 20,000 students in total, and 65% of my undergraduate school students go to graduate school.
So, overall, most of the students will spend six years at the TUS campus for both their undergraduate and graduate degrees. I want them all to spend one year in the United States to learn leadership skills, not English skills.
English is something you need to study and learn in high school. This is also a problem, as many Japanese high-schoolers don’t graduate with solid English skills.
Once they reach the university, they need a solid level so that they can go abroad. I don’t also run a high school in addition to TUS, so I don’t have the capability to change this, so that’s my suggestion to our Ministry of Education.
What I can do for my university, however, is to bring all students to the US at least one year.
This way of thinking was behind the arrangements that you oversaw with the relationship with Babson and the universities with whom the Tokyo University of Science now partners with.
Babson and other universities, yes. We have 20,000 students, and we were looking for a partner in the United States.
MIT has barely 11,000 students, they have no dormitories that can accommodate my 4,000 new students a year for an arrangement. So, I worked with a state university; it is bigger and cheaper.
We began to work with the University of Texas at Arlington. I’m sending 30 students there and then see how they will react to it, and then I need to do a minor improvement and then formalize this as the future of the US-based curriculum here.
This is a pilot which began this year.
As most of your experience comes from the business side of PoweredCom and also your experience at IBM, I’d like to know what you bring to the table in this context now that you work in the education sector. What makes you different as the chairman here?
Many people ask that question. Actually, I initially did not want to take this job. I have different thoughts about universities; I am a better fit with competitive business.
I’ve acquired my skills from IBM, SAP, Pricewaterhouse Coopers. When I served these companies they were number one.
So, although we have alumni of this university in many fields, not very many of them have had experience working for the business champions of the world.
Many of them work at IT technology companies, which is great, but I thought I could help out my alma mater regarding internationalization.
I came back from beyond the exit door, so I am the guy who hired graduating students to business and use them. I knew what was not enough, what was good, English, or leadership skills, using English, interpersonal skills.
So I said, ok, I know probably a few international and world-class businesses and yes, I will be able to help my alma mater to become a world-class international science and engineering university.
Do you believe there’s a lack of corporate vision in universities? Should Japanese universities act more as corporations, what do you think as a professional of all these amazing companies?
Excellent question. Early in my role as TUS chairman, I benchmarked TUS against MIT. Why MIT? Out of the top 500 global universities, only 47 are science universities, so I can’t compare myself to 500, because a lot of them are based on humanities and other social sciences.
So I wanted to select one benchmarking target. As a premium institution, MIT had many of the qualities we sought to establish at TUS, so I went there, investigated, and benchmarked it against our school.
The share of revenue coming from tuition is very high in TUS and Japanese universities. At TUS it’s at 70%. Yet at MIT it’s only 9%. How is this possible?
So, I started investigating all of this, tuition fees, etc., what percentage of the students got their scholarships. I found that the number of foreign students in MIT is restricted for their undergraduate school.
Only 10%. The Japanese didn’t even know about this. So I said, welcoming international students unlimitedly into Japanese universities is a crazy thing to do.
At my university, even with Japanese instruction, 20% of students fail to graduate – we are very strict for qualification.
Our job employment ratio is excellent. The top performer of the world, and naturally for Japan as well. The top 500 world universities ranking does not include the job ratio.
Going back, so I said, yes, it’s true, the way the top universities in the US are run today is more like corporations. Why? Because they have migrated undergraduate orientation to graduate school orientation, where researching becomes major business.
Research is a business, so graduate school is a business. Capitalism. To run that entire spectrum of a complex business model, we need more entrepreneurship and corporate management skills.
And is Japan ready for that? Apparently TUS is, as you’ve been implementing this here.
In Japan there are many national universities, such as the University of Tokyo, funded by tax money that can’t be spent abroad. Of the 800 universities in Japan, 80% are private universities.
A private university has the freedom to go anywhere, so I’m doing it. Now, as a private university, I am not the only one with a business background running the university.
I’m a software engineer, I’m a salesman, I’m a fighter, and a manager, so it’s a big difference. Some of the private universities in Japan have started to employ corporate management, and they are alumni without any exception.
You talked about the importance of students going to the US to learn leadership, not just English. Why is it important to learn it in the US? Why can’t they learn about leadership here in Japan?
Language can be learned in any place, but leadership and interpersonal skills are developed based on experience.
An academic subject, like math, you can learn in lectures; management and entrepreneurship you can’t learn it in the lecture, you need to go into the situation and encounter a dynamic situation and experience the situations and gain the capability.
This is exactly what we’re striving for with Babson College. There are things you can’t learn from textbooks. Language, grammar, vocabulary, you can.
In terms of this research applied here at TUS, how are you also in the global context, how are you communicating these positive sides of TUS? To Japan, Malaysia, to the world in general.
The issue is marketing. So, one of my organizational adjustments includes marketing and people management because we need to sign a lot of new employment contracts with non-Japanese teachers and students, not just in Japan but also in Malaysia and the US.
Information technology has my top priority. The internet of things. A new economy, outcome economy, smart and connected component-embedded sensors, Japanese technologies.
Japan has a strategic weakness in software – we don’t have any proprietary Japanese operating systems, so that’s our weakness and I’m very unhappy about it, because I’m a software engineer.
When we interviewed another prominent Japanese CEO, we asked him why there is a problem with entrepreneurship in Japan, why people just don’t want to set up their own companies, go outside just take the risk, and he said the problem is the mothers. There is a firm state of family tradition in which mothers just don’t want their children to go and be entrepreneurs.
I don’t disagree with that, but it’s not just mothers. It is a perception problem that entrepreneurs are fresh graduates and young people.
That’s wrong, as a matter of fact we are inventing together with MIT new terminology, intrapreneurship. That’s for Japan. Japan is well known for big companies. Entrepreneurship is for young people and also scientists.
The issue is the equity. The Japanese do not play good for equity. Stock, capital market. The Japanese equity market is very risk-averse. It’s not like US market. I think we need to restore a risk capital market.
It’s not just to blame young generations, I blame the entrepreneurship system, which is comprised by corporations, entrepreneurs risk with capital, government for regulations, and of course universities.
I take responsibility for what you see in Japan, a low level of entrepreneurship, a low level of going abroad. I think we are obligated to improve this for Japan.
I do a lot for the designing of our future school of business, for which I am recruiting international talent, because it is an international school.
You say that Japan needs more innovation, which surprises me coming from you, because in Japan we see how innovation has been such a front runner of this economy about how wonderful Japan is doing for innovation. That’s one of the things Japan is known for. So, what is your perspective on that? Why would you say that it’s something where Japan should grow?
In new discoveries we are still very active. But the issue is, the life cycle of invented new value is shortening. This is as a result of the technology transfer issue. It’s called technology boomerang effects.
The education level of other countries is higher and higher every day. Like Japan did in the past. Japan got the automobile from the US, the camera and watch from Europe, etc. Then Korea did it, China did it.
It’s repeating things, reverse engineering. The issue is the life cycle. I invented this, this used to be 50 years good, and it’s now only five months. Because five months later, somebody is producing better than that.
Look at smartphones. Look at the iOS versus Android – they are catching up very quickly because we are all connected via internet, so we can talk over the network in real time, we basically understand the same terminology, so we can catch up.
There is no poor country, slow learning, rich country, fast learning. This paradigm doesn’t exist anymore because of IT.
What is the most valuable asset of this university?
Our willingness to be a world-class university. We started a long-term planning system three years ago when I started here, and we have followed up on our own plans every year.
Last year we predicted what we would look like in 2020. We will be doing our future projection 2021 this year. That’s a planning exercise, but so that people don’t take it too lightly, I call it our promise for the future.
We have a strong promise for the future and the future of our students. Graduation is just a passing point. We are obligated to the future of our students. I want them to be happier than they are now.
I want them to be the leaders, not the followers. I want them to be creative and not copy. This is not a special thing, this is a very normal feeling. But because of this, this is strong and lasts long.
We have a promise for the future. That’s our strongest point.