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Japan's Aichi Gakuin University. (PHOTO: KIYOK/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Exporting Higher Education and Global Innovation Networks

• August 26, 2013 • 9:10 AM

Japan's Aichi Gakuin University. (PHOTO: KIYOK/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Why Japan’s minister for education and science is making it a priority to double the import and export of university students.

When high school graduates from outside the region attend a local college, that counts as an export of higher education. The international trade of such services is booming. Japan wants a piece of the action. Minister for Education and Science Hakubun Shimomura outlines the challenge:

We want Japanese universities to increase the number of international faculty, raise the number of classes conducted in English and introduce standardized tests like Toefl as a means to lift English skills. We also want to double the flow of students coming to Japan and those leaving Japan for overseas institutions.

To that end we are providing greater subsidies to those universities that are serious about making changes.

The Education Rebuilding Implementation Council stated in a recent report that “the delay in the globalization of Japanese universities is reaching a critical state.” Those are pretty strong words. …

… Japanese universities are like isolated ivory towers. Their refrain has long been ‘freedom of education and research,’ but you suddenly realize they have been unable to cope with today’s realities. Few are globally oriented, and few are in sync with the needs of today’s society at home.

Emphasis added. Shimomura aims to double the import and export of higher education services. Isolation, the lack of globalization, is a two-way street. Without such flows, Japan remains outside of transnational innovation networks.

The Japanese Innovation Economy suffers from inbreeding homophily. Familiarity breeds a paucity of new ideas. For sociologists, the lack of weak ties problem (too parochial) is old hat:

[I]ndividuals with few weak ties will be deprived of information from distant parts of the social system and will be confined to the provincial news and views of their close friends. This deprivation will not only insulate them from the latest ideas and fashions but may put them in a disadvantaged position in the labor market, where advancement can depend, as I have documented elsewhere (1974), on knowing about appropriate job openings at just the right time. Furthermore, such individuals may be difficult to organize or integrate into political movements of any kind, since membership in movements or goal-oriented organizations typically results from being recruited by friends. While members of one or two cliques may be efficiently recruited, the problem is that, without weak ties, any momentum generated in this way does not spread beyond the clique. As a result, most of the population will be untouched.

The macroscopic side of this communications argument is that social systems lacking in weak ties will be fragmented and incoherent. New ideas will spread slowly, scientific endeavors will be handicapped, and subgroups separated by race, ethnicity, geography, or other characteristics will have difficulty reaching a modus vivendi.

Japanese researchers are deprived of information from distant parts of the global innovation social system. The ebb and flow of international students will help address that deficiency, linking Japan’s universities to other research institutions around the world. The benefit is not so much the export of higher education as it is fostering more Japanese innovation and economic development.

Shimomura suggests Japan export more talent, promote brain drain as a spark for a moribund economy. Looking at net migration, the balance of trade, misses the point. Gross migration is a better metric. The strength of churn indicates vitality of place. A neighborhood no one leaves is dying.

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

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