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Education in engineering and bio-environmental sciences

Interview - April 1, 2024

The interview sheds light on KUAS's unique approach to integrating international students into its fabric, offering insights into the challenges and opportunities inherent in Japan's higher education landscape. From addressing the language barrier to forging partnerships with overseas institutions, KUAS is actively shaping a future where diversity and collaboration are paramount. 

MASAFUMI MAEDA, PRESIDENT OF KYOTO UNIVERSITY OF ADVANCED SCIENCE
MASAFUMI MAEDA | PRESIDENT OF KYOTO UNIVERSITY OF ADVANCED SCIENCE

Could you give us a quick introduction to the Kyoto University of Advanced Science and tell us some of the key landmarks in your university’s history?

As you mentioned, we have about 50 years of history as a university. However, about six years ago the CEO of NIDEC Corporation, Mr. Nagamori, got involved with this university and completely changed the profile of our institution. Originally, I hail from the University of Tokyo, where I resided from the age of 18 to 65. In other words, I didn’t really have a clue about other universities. I attended the University of Toronto for three years as a postdoctoral fellow and later a visiting professor, but other than that I had no experience with universities outside of the University of Tokyo.

Mr. Nagamori told me that he wanted to create a research lab for industrial science, so he went ahead with his plans and I became the head of that research lab at his company. It was around that time that he became involved with this university, so he started asking me how he should run the university. He decided to establish a faculty of engineering at this university based on advice from an advisory committee that he formed, which included me. The thing is, it is very difficult to create a new faculty at a university, so he decided to have me resign job at the lab and come over to this university. So, in reality, this university’s history only spans six years.

Now, let’s talk a little about the number of international students in Japan. In the past, the Japanese government has made many attempts to increase the number of foreign students coming into the country. The various ministries and ministers have obeyed the instructions of our politicians and attempted to realize these goals, but there still exists a serious problem where international students aren’t able to study effectively in Japan as full-time students. Politicians frequently cite the numbers of foreign students, but in my opinion, these numbers are somewhat deceptive. You might have heard the figure “400,000 international students”, but I believe that figure isn’t exactly honest about the real situation.

When I served as the EVP at the University of Tokyo, the then-president worked diligently to promote autumn admissions. However, our efforts were not successful. Many Japanese universities hold conservative views due to factors such as Japanese high school graduation occurring in March and job placements starting in April. Despite considering and attempting various strategies, we had to abandon the initiative due to a lack of support from universities and companies. It was a missed opportunity.

I was eager to implement this at our university. However, running curriculums simultaneously for Japanese students entering in April and international students entering in September requires considerable planning. We were able to achieve this.

In larger universities, based on my experience, aligning schedules, for instance, between the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Engineering, can take nearly a decade.

Innovation is achievable at smaller universities precisely because of their size. At KUAS, we have five faculties with a small number of professors; around 200. This means that it is easy to create consensus.

 

With very globally high-ranked institutions and a very low financial barrier to entry, Japan has long been praised as a fantastic destination for students to enter the international workforce, however, even if Japan continues to internationalize itself, significant concerns about the language, the distance, and the prospects of long term employment have led to a drop in international student enrollment. From your perspective, what do you believe is the added value of studying in Japan?

When asking international students why they chose Japan, especially since they are in the Faculty of Engineering, they often highlight Japan's technological advancements as the primary reason. However, they also emphasize the importance of Japan being a comfortable and safe place to live.

Japan is a safe, religiously neutral country. For example, take the perspective of a female Muslim student who wants to study abroad. From her perspective, countries like America or Canada are attractive places, but there are some elements of risk. Another thing, which you already mentioned, is finding a job after graduation. Japanese companies, at least in the global market, can sell their name; they have the brainpower. However, most of their production facilities are located overseas. If we are talking about Asia, big Japanese firms have factories in Vietnam, Indonesia, China, and the Philippines. As such, much of the population of these countries knows about Japanese firms. Students come to us with the expectation that they can work for these big companies. I think this accounts for a simple reason why students who want to work for those manufacturing firms come to us for their university studies. We are the only university in Japan where you can learn about mono-zukuri topics in English. Recent surveys indicate that 70% of students in the Faculty of Engineering wish to work in Japan, compared to only 30% before their arrival. This suggests that they feel more positively about Japan after coming to the country.

 

You mentioned in your last statement that you are the only university in Japan where students can learn about manufacturing topics in English, however, we have conducted interviews with many large firms behind those production sites and often they have talked about key issues they are having when hiring young people. We have heard countless times that the next generation isn’t particularly interested in a career in manufacturing since it is considered dirty and hard work. What are your thoughts on this perceived mindset?

At our university, some students like to get their hands dirty. These students will become production engineers, meaning that they won’t be the ones working on the factory floor, but instead, they will be doing more design-related work. They will learn how to use lathes and drills, but they won’t be using them in their day-to-day work.

Most Japanese companies only have experience hiring people fresh out of college, so for that reason, a lot of big companies effectively have a school inside their company where they can train fresh graduates. Regardless of whether you are coming out of a bachelor’s program or a master’s program when you get inducted into the company, everybody goes through those courses together. With a lot of companies, their HR department has only ever encountered Japanese students fresh out of college, and they have no idea how to deal with anyone different.

However, these kinds of internal educational programs are changing. It is a matter of cost. Today, it is very difficult for a lot of companies to afford this kind of internal training, therefore they want to hire people who already have on-the-job training straight out of college; that is, the ability to work right away.

The people at the top of these companies want international HR and they want women in the workplace. But as I just mentioned, their HR managers have no idea how to deal with anyone who isn’t a fresh Japanese recruit. This means that HR departments have not yet caught up with what executives want, and there is a gap. Right now, we are preparing to graduate our first cohort in June of next year. The staff of our Career Development Center are also having meetings with the top management and the executives of these companies. You could almost say that we are borrowing some nuances from a mid-career job-finding program when we collaborate with these companies to secure employment for our graduating international students. The head of our career support program here on campus meets with the executives of these companies to show them what kind of students we have created. Honestly speaking, if you did things the traditional way, HR departments would not understand what to do with these students. Luckily, I think that the problems you mentioned were relevant about 10 years ago, and now things are changing. It is my opinion that our graduates are not going to have issues finding a job after graduation.

Of course, a certain amount of effort is required to make all this happen. On our part, we need to promote students to companies effectively, and the students need to learn at least the bare minimum of Japanese necessary to function in a work environment in Japan, which I believe is the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) level three or what is colloquially known as N3. The downside is that a student who is trying to learn engineering skills with his hands might have difficulty learning a new language at the same time. By using mixed languages at the workplace, an engineer can use JLPT N3 to get the point across. In reality, we are a little more strict with our students and demand that they get JLPT N2, so I do sometimes feel a little bad for them.

The market for these students exists and is prevalent, however, the pipeline to conveying these students to the market and the right companies is still a little narrow. This is because the pool of students did not exist in the past, so companies did not know how to access them. The executives have caught up very fast, but HR departments are still catching up.



Japan as a country consists of 97% SMEs, with large companies only accounting for 3%. Are you only focusing on large corporations or are you open to promoting international students to SMEs as well?

We don’t have a proclivity for one or the other; students are free to create their businesses, join SMEs, or work for large corporations. We have big and small companies here in Kyoto. The fact is that we have students from 40 different countries, and their goals vary. However, what surprised me is that after we started this university we started getting attention from giants like Daikin and Honda, which we didn’t expect. I think the reason is that these big companies are looking to create products that will appeal to the emerging markets that these students represent. We are talking about Africa and Southeast Asia. All of these companies are trying to make factories in developing nations and thereby create new markets for themselves in those countries.

It is often the case that Japanese engineers or managers from big companies are sent to local factories or facilities to oversee things for a while, but they aren’t necessarily capable of learning the local language or understanding the local culture in the way that somebody from that country could. Sending young, well-trained individuals who are already ingrained in the local culture and language creates a net positive for those countries. These people don’t even have to come from our university; at the end of the day, there is a benefit to providing these kinds of personnel to developing countries. In the future, it isn’t going to be a matter of sending Japanese middle management to these places. Instead, it will be these international graduates.

 

In interviews with other universities, we hear about how DX is important. The integration of IoT and ICT has significantly impacted education, however, Japanese institutions are conservative and feel a deep link to the importance of handwriting. The entire nation seems to still be searching for the right balance of how to integrate digital tools without oversaturation. How do you see DX and ICT shaping the education of Japan moving forward, and what opportunities do you see from these inevitable changes?

I think there might be a little bit of a misunderstanding on your part regarding the handwriting aspect of your question. But allow me to qualify that statement.

Unlike Western cultures, in which there is a long history of using the printing press to print documents, this was not so common in Japan. This led to a greater emphasis on handwriting. Japanese printing presses existed, but these required very specialized skills and were very limited in number. During the times before computers, there were typewriters, but imagine a keyboard with over 3,000 characters and you can understand why this technology was so limited. Then computers emerged, and it was no longer necessary to use so much handwriting. However, things weren’t all sunshine and rainbows, and we now face a problem where nobody can remember how to write the 3,000 Japanese characters anymore.

Rather than the issue being a failure to progress more into digital technologies and to promote digital documentation, I think it is more of an issue of management. In a Japanese company, it is very common to have very complicated approval processes where to get anything done or decided, you need to get approval from the first manager, then the second, the third, and so on until you reach the top executives. Everyone has to agree on a course of action. This is common because Japanese culture values collective decision-making and shared responsibility. Nobody gets the blame alone if something goes wrong. This is why approval forms have such an important place in Japanese business culture, and it is considered crucial that everyone puts their stamp on them to show they approve of a plan.

Honestly, the topic we are now discussing is something that was probably discussed 10 years ago within Japanese culture. Thankfully, things are changing now. However, the problem now is that Japanese businesses have not perfected the method to reduce risk when dealing with digitized copies of these documents. I think a lot of managers of a lot of companies have not yet hashed out how careful they need to be about the personal information of their employees and their intellectual property. This is where they are currently struggling.

There have been incidents in Japan where there have been serious breaches of security and hacking incidents. In a country like America where everyone has had a personal computer in their home since the end of the 1980s, everybody has developed good common sense when it comes to technology, computing, and protecting your personal information on the internet. This kind of culture hasn’t had time to form and develop in Japan. In Japan, education tends to emphasize face-to-face learning, and I think that is related to historical choices that have been made by Japanese educators over many centuries. This is true even in the case of very young children. However, for university-level education, things can be a little bit different. Of course, face-to-face learning is still important even at a university level, but the number of professors available is limited. In this regard, I think the implementation of DX can be very effective.

In the case of our Faculty of Engineering, we have been getting quite a bit of use out of e-books. Additionally, although we didn’t want to, during the COVID-19 pandemic we did on-demand classes. It was a very awkward period for us since we had to learn how to do this from scratch. As a result of the pandemic, our teachers and students became culturally acclimated to doing things online and digitally. Now I feel there are more and more digital learning materials available all over the world, and all we need to do now that we have this basis for this culture of learning digitally is to adopt those materials and then transform them into the kinds of materials that we want to use for our educational goals. Even a small university like ours will be able to use materials from all around the world to teach and train our students. This is a big chance for us.

 

Your university has built itself with a foundation of five educational pillars; engineering, bio-environmental science, global business and economics, humanities, and medical science. You encourage students to specialize in science-related subjects that contribute to tomorrow’s world by educating them with the skills necessary to shape the future of society. Can you describe your programs and how you manage to prepare your students for the world of tomorrow?

When our chairman Mr. Nagamori came to our university, the first thing he wanted us to do was create programs that were taught in English, as we have done so far in our faculty of engineering. One obvious reason is for our international students, and the second reason is because Japanese students tend to possess poor English skills. It is not about making them learn English, per se. Rather, it is about providing them with an environment where they have to study a topic that they are passionate about in English. That is more beneficial for their careers.

The Faculties of Bioenvironmental Sciences and Business Administration are also planning to teach curricula in English starting in 2025, but apart from that, the other faculties already hold about a quarter of their classes in English. Again, we take the approach of teaching something in English rather than just learning English in a language class. We've established a foundation where our students, both Japanese and international, study at least a quarter of their curriculum in English. So, when we integrate international students into these programs, we'll ensure they can earn all their credits and graduate by completing their studies entirely in English. We're paving the way for our students to learn in English and fostering an environment for them to gradually become comfortable with the language. Eventually, they'll be able to fully embrace English without any feelings of difficulty.

 

Foreign students coming to Japan also want to learn about Japanese culture. Why is it so important for you to attract foreign students to learn Japanese culture at your university, and what initiatives do you have in place so that your university is the most attractive possible for international students looking to integrate into Japan?

One of the big benefits of our university is that we are located in Kyoto and we have classes where students can learn about Japanese culture, just like any other university. Furthermore, if a student takes a step off of our campus, they will find themselves in the heartland of Japanese culture.

Some of the professors take international and Japanese students on trips to see cultural sites like the rivers around Kameoka or the oldest Buddhist temples in Japan. We want those students to get involved in the community and make friends with locals. But, that is not to say that other universities in other locations around Japan couldn’t just do the same thing if they had the will to do so. Each location has its special place where students can learn about Japanese culture, but in my opinion, it isn’t a must for students coming to our university to learn about Japanese culture.

We have students coming from places like Tokyo and other prefectures coming to Kyoto for the first time. They are here to study for their degree, but they also want the opportunity to experience life in Kyoto.


Kyoto Uzumasa Campus


The uniqueness of your engineering program is we are correct in the firsthand experience the students get, working in the real world. What will be the differentiating aspect of your bio-environmental science program that will help you to stand out from competing programs at other universities?

The aspects that make our international Bioenvironmental Sciences program unique will be the same as that of our Faculty of Engineering. With our engineering students, they have access to a machining shop right inside the building. In the case of Bioenvironmental Sciences, which is located in Kameoka Campus, there are greenhouses and fields immediately outside their building. We even have a swamp, a river, and a creek that runs through the campus. These are all different biomes where the students will be able to do field work firsthand. I think we are the only university where you can see fireflies inside our campus because industrialization and development have chased them away from many rivers in Japan.

 

Other interviews with other major universities in Japan have often mentioned the importance of partnerships with overseas institutions as a way of advancing research projects along with many other benefits. What role do partnerships play within your business model and are you actively searching for any new partnerships in overseas countries?

Yes, we do want to make more partnerships around the world, and we already have partnerships with about 20 or 30 institutions, but we are looking to create more. Our capacity for teaching and training is not enough for our students, so we need to provide more opportunities to study at other institutions.

There are two types of collaborations. One would be on a research level, and in that case, collaboration would consist of an exchange between researchers, or a situation where two individuals are exchanged within larger institutions. In the case of an educational exchange, it would be a little different, and there are two steps to that process. For example, we had about 20 students from Boston Massachusetts come over to visit us. They got to learn on our campus and visit businesses around Kyoto. In exchange, we sent over 20 of our students to Boston to do some studies and visit their campus. The second step in this process is to recognize each other’s accreditation systems so that students can go to that university and receive credits while only paying for the tuition from one university. If things proceed well, the final objective is to provide those students with a kind of double degree. 

 

For international students looking to study in Japan, the first thought would probably be Tokyo University. In your specific case, what are you doing to attract foreign students to come to your university?

The first thing is simply the name of the university; Kyoto University of Advanced Science. The decision to use “Kyoto” as the first word in our name was premeditated. By doing so, students will tend to navigate to our website when searching for Kyoto, although the president of Kyoto University wasn’t happy about it. I think in the case of international students, the playing ground is much more even compared to the domestic market. The reason for that is that international students will look at our website, look at our curriculum, decide for themselves if they like the components of the curriculum, and then come to our university. This is not the case with domestic Japanese students, because they are not looking at the program or the quality of the education. Rather, they are just looking at the brand name of the university. We are committed to creating a brand name for ourselves too.

 

What is next for your university? Imagine that we come back in six years and have this interview again. What goals or ambitions do you have for the next six years at Kyoto University of Advanced Science?

The most important thing is that graduating students feel confident in the skills they’ve learned, the kind of skills that will allow them to live independently and take care of themselves. They should feel secure that they will be able to function as successful members of society.

I think the world is becoming an increasingly complicated place to succeed in. In the case of Japan, you have a graduate from a place like the University of Tokyo to get into a prestigious company like Toshiba. But then, all of sudden, that company may go bankrupt, or in the case of, let’s say, the conflict in Ukraine or Gaza, we can see that life is no longer a story that goes beginning to end linearly. Everybody needs to be able to survive in a world where life branches out in unexpected ways, and you don’t know where you’re going to end up. There is a real necessity to have skills that allow you to survive and thrive in this kind of uncertain environment, and this is why we want to impart to our students.

This is not something we can do alone, and we need to borrow the strengths and talents of our fellow universities around the world to achieve this goal. We want to continue to partner with other institutions, expand our network of allies, and enable our students to experience new environments and learn more about the world they live in.


For more details, explore their website at https://www.kuas.ac.jp/en/ 

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