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International & interdisciplinary collaborations give Tsukuba the edge

Interview - April 4, 2016

Originally founded 140 years ago, the University of Tsukuba has built a deserved reputation for being one of the Japan’s primary higher education pillars, and works closely with industry and international organizations. Its President, Dr Kyosuke Nagata, discusses what makes the university unique in Japan and where he sees it heading.


How does the university contribute to Japan’s growth, socio-economic development, and innovation today?

In my opinion, human resources are the most important factor to enable innovation. In this regard, the University of Tsukuba is continuously striving to support and educate people in Japan for them to be globally competent. Of course the role of universities is to provide academic courses subjects and research projects, however I believe that what’s presently needed is a more globalized mind, and that is another important factor to enable innovation. The University of Tsukuba has been trying to lay the foundations for this internationalized spirit, and is constantly nurturing students as globally competent persons. Japanese students tend to be very shy and for them the language is a big barrier, as well as the lack of experience with international people. If we remove these barriers, certainly Japanese students would be better and more integrated into the global space. In this regard our university strives to nurture, teach, educate and generalize globalization and global standards.

We are very keen on accepting and welcoming international students in our university. In fact we have one of the highest rates of international students. At present we are focusing on recruiting more international students as well as sending out our students for international exchanges. This kind of training makes the students more confident to study and work outside Japan. This confidence will in turn encourage the students to study. So the globalization of the students as well as human resources are very key.

The second key area where the University of Tsukuba contributes is through the interdisciplinary collaborations we have put in place, which are extremely important nowadays. I’d like to take the example of the robotics industry. In order to develop the robots of the future, which will live side by side with humans, it is important that all sides collaborate and that all aspects are taken into account in order to develop the most accurate and appropriate products – engineering development, materials, technologies development, psychology, law, ethics, etc. Interdisciplinary [action] should be implemented from the start and all through the development process: humanities or social science professors should work alongside and guide the engineers and technicians how to make the best robot.

The same goes in other fields as well. Take sport science for instance, which is a very important interdisciplinary area. At the University of Tsukuba, our system engineering and material science departments are working with our sports engineers to develop new sports shoes which will enhance ball kicking abilities and prevent the ball from rotating for instance. As a matter of fact last year Honda, one of the players in the national football team in the 2014 World Cup Brazil, wore these shoes that were developed at our university in collaboration with a private company. This is a very good example of what can be achieved through interdisciplinary collaboration: human engineering, materials engineering and sports science when combined can give birth to such great products.

I believe it is the role of universities to combine these various fields of research and bring them together to create new products, services and inventions; and this is something fundamental. The definition of a university itself is a place where different kinds of knowledge accumulate and integrate to develop something new. Innovation in my opinion requires two things: globalization and interdisciplinary collaboration.


How important is the transformation of the education sector to Japan’s economic development, and in your opinion, can Abenomics succeed without a more global Japanese educational sector?

I believe in open education. We have to make the Japanese system open for students and for staff members, and promote a more open education. We have to use all resources all over the world to educate our students, and we have to mobilize all our capabilities and make them available also for the rest of the world. Students shouldn’t feel any barriers between their universities; that is very important.

At the University of Tsukuba, we have initiated a new operating system which is called “campus-in-campus”, by which the University of Tsukuba has its campus in other universities, and vice-versa hosts other universities’ campuses in its campus. We started with the University of Bordeaux, and we are now negotiating to pursue the same program with two other universities, the University of California and the National Taiwan University. This system is still limited right now, but it works really well for students; they are free to go as there are no barriers between universities. We are currently hosting a research unit from the Netherlands and from Germany; their people are working here, they have their own laboratory, and we pay their salaries.


Can you tell us about the university’s involvement within the Global 30 program, and about your various efforts to encourage more foreign students into the wide variety of courses and degrees on offer?

 We submitted the application to integrate into the Global 30, however we struggled in the process as we were at the time already fairly well internationalized as a university. If we did double the number of international students in eight years as requested, more than 50% of our students would be international students by then. We already have more 3,000 international students, which is over 20% of the total students registered at the university, so we couldn’t really aim to double the number. The optimal ratio of foreign students in my opinion is between 25-30%. Top American universities I believe are around 20%. So our application for the Global 30 wasn’t really adapted to our case, but it is going well as we are already close to the target. Everything is going well, except maybe for our campus-in-campus initiative, where we need maybe 10 more universities to join the program to make it really effective and successful.

We are also struggling in regards to the women ratio within the professors, for historical reasons. In Japan, women are not very career oriented, so it takes a while to change the mindset, and we have to educate and find more candidates, but that takes time.


In today’s world, student and universities alike have an interest in maintaining and further fostering close ties with industry. Can you please explain how this university collaborates with industry and what innovations have been created through such relationships?

We are now collaborating with a number of companies including the car making company Toyota, on a project to launch society without wheels. Toyota is thinking of what can be the car of the next generation; they are thinking about a society without cars and considering different mobility systems. They are trying to establish something new – if they don’t, in 20 years’ time they may be outdated as a company. They always have to anticipate and think about what’s next. If we try to develop just another new engine for Toyota it may be too late, as society may have moved onto the next generation type of products and a different mobility environment.

The University of Tsukuba offers very comprehensive academic curricula, including even art and design and human engineering departments – which is becoming now rarer in Japan – and therefore can supply industries and companies with any idea, and anything that they need.

The same goes in the field of healthcare, where we always have to generate new drugs discoveries and find out something new. Universities I believe have to be at the forefront of research and always propose leading-edge ideas and concepts to industries. We work with big industries and always try and find out what’s next, and we collaborate. If we managed to collaborate with industries and companies outside Japan, I believe this would be a trigger for even more discoveries and innovations.


According to Thomson Reuters, Tsukuba is the 10th best research institutions of all the universities and non-educational research institutions in Japan. How has such prestigious ranking helped build your image and reputation? How are you planning to build the Tsukuba brand?

Creating a reputation for the University of Tsukuba has been quite challenging, as the name and history of Tsukuba started only 40 years ago, which is very short compared to the University of Tokyo or Osaka for instance. We need more dynamic reputation change. Basic science takes a long time to carry out, but for applied science of industrial collaboration, results are faster to achieve, so we are hopeful that our current collaborations, projects and discoveries in these fields will help establish our name. Internationalization is also very important. Last year we established a new university ranking with Thomson Reuters in the field of sports science, which will also contribute position the university globally.

We are trying to promote the Tsukuba Science City, which is one of the biggest science cities in the world. In addition, we are also trying to establish a global Tsukuba conference for young researchers, scientists, and young economists, based on the ongoing Tsukuba Global Science Week. We invited all the universities of the world with which we have collaborations or MoUs. Last year we had 90 universities and institutes from all over the world coming for three days; we hosted 32 sessions and workshops around physics, arts, medical science, engineering, etc. We have hosted this event six times already, and will work further with industries and partners to continue set this up.


You have another five years to go under your mandate as president of the university. What do you have the most at heat to accomplish during your tenure?

I am very focused on the internationalization of the university and towards facilitating global collaborations – any kind of collaborations: inter-disciplinary collaborations, academia-industry collaborations, academia-government collaborations, and inter-universities collaborations. Interdisciplinary collaboration may even generate new academic research fields and subjects.


What would be your personal message to readers?

I worked in New York for more than four years, where I experienced the American dream. Today I feel that we have to go back to and revitalize the American dream through the American spirit.