Why School Rankings Don't Matter—and What Does

TOKYO—Junichi Hamada is still a month away from taking office as the next president of the University of Tokyo, and it's clear he's already weary of one question. After Hamada gave a luncheon talk here on 24 February, a member of the audience asked whether he has a strategy to make the school number one in the world.

Hamada sighed.

University rankings have proliferated in recent years. Although university administrators and even those creating the rankings play down their accuracy and their significance, journalists, members of the public, and university alumni seem to love the lists—and to wonder why their favorite school isn't higher up. Todai—as the University of Tokyo is fondly called in Japan—is already pretty near the top. It placed 19th in the world and first in Asia in the latest rankings by both the Times Higher Education QS World University Rankings and the Shanghai Jiao Tong University Academic Ranking of World Universities.

Hamada, a constitutional-law scholar specializing in freedom-of-expression issues, did finally respond to the question, saying, "I don't think such rankings matter that much; I would like respect to come from what the researchers and the graduates of the University of Tokyo contribute to the people of the world."

The importance of contributions to society was a theme of Hamada’s talk and is something he promises to make a cornerstone of his 6-year term of office, which starts 1 April. He spoke of the "publicness" of knowledge and how especially in this time of global crisis, universities should "serve society through sharing the knowledge we generate." This should include not only sharing technology to benefit industry but also bolstering philosophical and cultural exchanges with the public as well. "University research should be not to satisfy individual egos but to enrich the entire society and humanity," he says. To put this into practice, Hamada noted that Todai is already planning "a new organization to facilitate interaction with industry, communities, and citizens."

Getting back to rankings, the incoming university president admitted that the scrutiny can highlight institutional weaknesses. Todai turns out to be one of the least internationalized of the top universities. Only 91 of 7666 permanent faculty members are non-Japanese, and only 2131 of its 14,293 graduate students are from overseas. "We want to improve these numbers, regardless of whether it improves our ranking or not," Hamada says.

Posted in Asia, Education