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‘Our goal is to be one of the top ten technical universities in Asia by 2027’

Interview - March 7, 2018

Masato Murukami, President of the Shibaura Institute of Technology (SIT), discusses the internationalization of higher education in Japan, SIT’s robotics research square, and how he aims to make SIT one of the top technical universities in Asia



How important is higher education in the Japan’s internationalization process?

Most industries in Japan are already globalized. It is now the turn of Japanese universities to globalize. In fact, higher education in tbe STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) field itself is borderless. Performing higher education in a global environment is important in the internationalizing process of Japanese universities. Thus we are increasing the number of international students and faculty members at Shibaura Institute of Technology. I also encourage my students to go abroad and see the world. By doing so, they can broaden their global mindset and I firmly believe that experience is the best teacher. It is extremely important for Japanese young people to experience other countries. Such adventures have a great impact on one’s self, and it motivates the individual to learn more. Education is of utmost importance – it can change the world and it will change Japan.

The population in Japan is decreasing, with the number of eighteen-year olds due to decrease to 1 million by 2030. Today, there are 1.2 million eighteen year olds in Japan as compared to the historical figure of 2 million in previous years. This is viewed as a serious problem for many private universities, and in fact, it is known as the ‘2018 problem of private universities.’ However, from the perspective of globalization, this is a narrow-minded view. If you consider the population of Asian countries and India, countless young people wish to go to university. The financing problems of private universities will be solved if we are able to attract students from those countries. If Shibaura Institute of Technology can become a globally attractive university, then this demographic situation is no longer a problem for our future.


How important is the region of Asia - and Asian students - for your institution in the internationalization process of the Japanese higher-education system?

I believe Japan should grow hand-in-hand with Asian countries. People in Southeast Asian countries have a very affirmative view on Japanese education, Japanese people and Japanese products. In a recent survey, young people in ASEAN countries raised Japan as one of the most attractive countries in the world; scoring much higher than the USA which was the second. By sharing the traditional values of “Monozukuri” or craftsman spirit and tradition, Japan can grow into the teacher of Asia. Students from Asia are also intelligent and industrious, and inspire Japanese students. International students as a whole - not just those from Asia - are very important for education and research at SIT. Hence, we wish to invite more international students.

In another aspect, SIT is a technical university which promotes gender equality. Originally, we had few female faculty members. This has gradually increased with 2007 seeing ten female faculty members - representing 5% - to where we are today with fifty members – representing 17%. Promoting diversity through gender equality and welcoming more international students is key to the development and success of Shibaura Institute of Technology. I always say: “Diversity encourages critical thinking and challenges stereotypes.”


What is the current percentage of students from other locations? What would you like this percentage to be in ten years’ time?

It is only 10% now. In order to make the university environment global, we plan to increase it to 30% in ten years.  International students contribute to the improvement of education and research at SIT.


How important is it for you to create new partnerships in Asia and the world in order to make the route market easier for students to reach your university?

Making partnerships with universities in the world is really important for the globalization of SIT. The strategy that we have developed is to network using the connections that SIT professors and staff members have. With some 120 partnerships worldwide, this tactic has proven its success. We also recruit foreign professors, and this contributes to the enhancement of our network and connections.


Famous for its strength in engineering, design and science, Japanese universities are criticized for their international outlook. What are the strengths and weaknesses of Japan’s higher education today? How do you think your institution can collaborate in order to make these weaknesses smaller?

The perception of international outlook being a weakness is just one aspect, it is but one side of the coin. From another perspective, it could be considered as one of Japan’s strengths.

Let me exemplify what I mean by “it is but a side of the coin.” 100 years ago, when Japan did not have any professors that taught advanced technologies, Japanese institutions invited European professors. The classes were taught in the professor’s native language, such as English, German and French - which had the added benefit of training multi-lingual students. The Japanese government later decided to invest in educating Japanese professors to teach advance technologies. While this was positive for promoting higher education in Japan, because students learnt faster thanks to mother-tongue teaching. On the other hand, having local teachers became a disadvantage for Japanese universities in terms of international outlook; and that is the other side of the coin.

You can get Japanese textbooks (written in mother-tongue language) on almost all the advanced technologies, which is difficult for other countries, except a few. Using the mother tongue in higher education may yield better educational outcomes.  But this causes low scores in international outlook at Japanese universities.

Institutes in Asian countries often rank higher than Japanese universities such as SIT in the World University ranking. Perhaps it is because they still invite foreign professors to teach advanced technologies using textbooks written in English – resulting in their students having improved language skills. Their international outlook and the ratio of international faculty members are high. According to the PIACC test conducted by OECD, Japanese adults score the highest under the categories of literacy, numeracy and problem-solving skills based on IT, which reflects our high level of education. However, as these are taught in Japanese only, international outlook criteria suffer as a result.  We thus increased the number of the subjects taught in English at SIT. In 2020, we start the undergraduate courses where the students can earn credits all in English.


How do you rate the government’s initiatives in supporting Japan’s higher education sector including hosting more international students? What is your personal perspective and what must be done to help this change happen faster?

I am proud that SIT was only one private technical university selected as one of top global universities in 2014 MEXT's competition. Only 37 universities were selected out of 700 universities in Japan. I believe that this project awakened us the importance of globalization. The globalization of SIT was accelerated through participating this project. The financial support on top global universities from Japanese government is not enough to achieve real globalization.  Anyway, the support itself is welcome.

There is another interesting governmental project to invite junior and senior high school students from India and Asian countries for several weeks during which they learnt about Japan. The students were surprised to learn that Japan is a great place to live, safe, and with very kind people. After being introduced to Japan, they started to choose Japanese Universities as their destination of choice; proving the importance of advertisement.

Twenty years ago, our domestic market was large, and as far as the education sector was concerned, financing was good. Therefore, we mainly focused on educating Japanese students whose parents were prepared to pay the expensive private university tuition fees. The situation then rapidly changed and led to the need of attracting international students. This aspect is quite a new journey for Japanese universities including SIT.  As I mentioned, however, if SIT can become a globally attractive university, then the financial matter is no longer a problem for our future.


Can you take us through the history of your organization and its milestones? Can you tell us more about the classes and facilities that you offer today?

Tokyo Higher School of Industry and Commerce was founded by Dr. Shiro Arimoto in 1927, and this became Shibaura Institute of Technology (SIT) in 1949. Dr. Arimoto had a vision of fostering practical engineers to contribute to the industrial development of Japan. At that time, European countries and the USA were powerful in the field of technologies, as Japan was small and deprived of natural resources. Dr. Arimoto felt that we needed an institution to prepare practical engineers who were able to offer Monozukuri and industrial developments, both of which are very important. In those days, some higher education institutions did not offer practical engineering education. So, at SIT’s core is the wish to nurture practical engineers. We also have a specific teaching style which we have followed throughout our history of over 90 years: learning through practice. This style is also known as “active learning,” as opposed to passive learning.

In senior year, students undertake Graduation Thesis Studies. They are supervised by one Professor and work on a project for one year. Students sometimes attend domestic and international conferences to give presentations on their results. It is an extremely effective way of learning, and it is common in most Japanese Universities, whereas it is less common in other countries. Confucius said “What I hear I forget; what I see I remember; what I do I understand.” You cannot drive a car by learning the mechanism, you have to learn to drive through practice. This is our teaching style at SIT. Learning by doing.


In the 2017 Times Higher Education World University Ranking, Shibaura ranked as the 58th best University in Japan and amongst the top 251 in Asia. What contributed to your success in achieving these high-ranking levels?

I am not satisfied with these ranking results. SIT has the potential to be ranked higher. 

The ranking system is based on various aspects including international outlook and research output.  From an international outlook perspective, the number of foreign students and faculty members in most Japanese universities are very low. So, we started to increase these numbers at SIT. This year we recruited twelve foreign faculty members, which definitely contributed to the improvement of the ranking. Research is also important for the university ranking. We encourage professors and students to write papers, for which SIT supports the submission fee if the impact factor of the journal is higher than one. 

Highly technological machines are needed in order to perform cutting edge research. However, these machines are quite expensive and need a lot of money to maintain. Three years ago, I proposed that we gather the machines to create a techno plaza, which is an R&D center equipped with high tech machines. More than forty brand new analytical devices were installed in the techno plaza and are available for anyone to use. We also appointed several staff members to show how the machine functions and how to maintain it.  They also help international students and faculty to use the machines. This is something we can provide over other universities in Japan


How would you convince an international student to come to Japan to study and more importantly to choose Shibaura?

Education and research level in Japanese universities is quite high, which is not recognized by foreign students.  The main reason is that most subjects are taught in Japanese.  We will prepare the undergraduate course taught in English from 2020.  This will attract more international students to come to SIT.   Regarding research, the techno plaza is a definite advantage of SIT. International students were glad to have used the machines and to have had someone to show them how they should be used. These students wrote many papers whilst they were here.


In 2015, you built a robotics research square on campus. What were the reasons behind this decision and the main inclinations that drove you to build it on campus?

We have almost forty professors who have a research interest in robotics. I believe Japan is number one in the world in the field of robotics technology, and it is an area of interest for many students. Because it is such an advanced technology, it is difficult to find professors with a major in robotics to create international partnerships. As a solution, we invite professors and lecturers from Asia to learn about robotics and other high technologies here in SIT. They then go back to their countries to establish a new department. We promote international collaboration with SIT graduates who have become professors. Robotics is an interesting field of research and of education. We are therefore expanding this field not only in Japan or SIT, but also in those Asian countries.


2017 marked Shibaura Institute of Technology’s 90th anniversary. In the space of nine decades, your university has greatly developed, both in terms of ranking, diversity and size, and is today recognized as one of Japan’s top Universities for engineering. What developments would you like to implement over the next ten years towards your 100th anniversary in order to achieve main challenges or key goals to celebrate your 100 years of history?

Our goal is to be one of the top ten technical universities in Asia by 2027, just in time to celebrate our centennial anniversary. Our objective is not the ranking itself, but to achieve the position through daily innovation. We want to reach a level of excellency. The key to attain this objective will be internationalization, both in terms of faculties and students which we need to increase. With this key aspect in mind, I negotiated with university board members who authorized me to hire as many international faculty members as possible, accepting the extensive finance it will take. By increasing the number of international faculty staff, we can enhance our networks with Europe, the USA, Australia and Asia. Research activities will greatly be promoted by international cooperation. We encourage professors to go abroad, study and make international networks; and as mentioned, we invite young lecturers from Asian countries. Shibaura Institute of Technology has what it takes to achieve its objective.