College Makeover Long Overdue
Masahiko ISHIZUKA (Counselor of the Foreign Press Center/Japan)
Universities face shake-up as admissions slump, society's needs change
Like other sectors in Japan, such as the financial industry, higher education faces the prospect of a major shake-up and profound changes after having slumbered in a noncompetitive environment that refused changes. One stark reality that confronts Japan's colleges and universities is simply survival - capacity is exceeding demand as the number of college entrants rapidly decreases in line with the demographic trend of fewer and fewer young people. Competition is intensifying as the college-age population shrinks.
Another factor driving change in higher education is changing social and business climate that demands innovation in teaching and more substantive achievements required for college degrees. In other words, businesses and society as a whole are increasingly serious about the need for better college education.
A study announced at the recent academic conference on education sociology in Japan has drawn attention to a significant change that attests to a new outlook on the part of students. The study was based on a survey of students at a score of private and national universities, asking them what they sought most from college education and to what they attached the most importance.
The study found that compared to past polls, a larger portion of students queried about their views of college education cited quality of teaching and greater academic discipline as important. Students who viewed these elements as priorities reached 49.6%, 10 points more than six years ago. Students who thought the university to be foremost a place for learning reached 49.2%, up 8.8 points.
Whatever the reason, the change is remarkable, compared with the past image of Japanese college life, which belittle hard learning. For most college students, college was a place for four years of carefree paradise to enjoy friendship, sports and other fun activities, with academic work and achievement getting only secondary importance.
Until recently, Japanese universities, where getting accepted is notoriously competitive, have allowed students to live an easy life academically once they are admitted. The quality of undergraduate education is poor in that it lacks substance, and the degree is conferred without much in the way of academic achievements. Students do not complain about the emptiness of college education; indeed they welcome the easy life. Classes are too big, professors often lack zeal for teaching, and attendance often seems optional.
Japanese students who go to U.S. colleges or schools in other countries are often surprised by the hard-working students and the academic demands on them.
University of Tokyo President Takeshi Sasaki, talking about higher education in Japan in general, said he was concerned about the poor quality or absence of education worthy of the name at Japanese colleges. He identified this as a major problem in Japanese higher education, and said that research, another important function of universities, was not a matter of much concern as education was.
What worries Dr. Sasaki is the prevailing social mood that does not take college education seriously. Japanese companies generally do not expect the new graduates they hire to have learned a lot at school in academic terms. Knowledge in specific fields is not what they expect, because they always retrain new graduates according to their goals. The general atmosphere has predominantly been not to question the academic substance of college education or what students learn there.
As a result, intellectual independence, the ability to think clearly and the importance of intelligence, the very bases of the liberal arts education, have been neglected. In this sense, Japanese youth, even those who have been admitted to the most prestigious universities, have largely been allowed to spend four years at college without facing real intellectual challenge.
It is not students who should be primarily blamed for this situation. Rather, it is the social climate that has allowed or even preferred them to be in this situation.
If anyone should be held responsible, it is universities themselves, which lack the proper attitude as guardians of higher education and the intellectual world. They have been neither alert to the changing realities in society and the world nor willing to reform themselves. They have failed in their supposed mission of providing the highest possible intellectual challenge to students in academic programs.
Just as the age of mass production is over in the industrialized world, the age of "mass education" as Japanese colleges are referred to, is being superceded. There is a keen realization that changes in Japan's society and economy plus the globalizing world are pushing universities to be more competitive, more alert institutions. Faculties are being more rigorously evaluated and subjected to competition.
One movement gaining stream is the practice of putting institutions to evaluation, as has been done in the U.S. through college accreditation societies. So far Japanese universities, even private ones, have been under strict supervision of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.
Government regulations have been particularly meticulous in authorizing the opening of new schools, or even new departments at existing colleges. But once authorization is given and the schools get started, institutional and authoritative evaluation of their performance has been nearly nonexistent. Thus, the quality of education at colleges and universities has not been properly checked.
Greater demand for more substantive education from students and presumably businesses and other social institutions reflects the harsher realities in which individuals are being asked to be more responsible for themselves, intellectually independent and knowledgeable about the changing realities of the world. Japanese society is changing in that direction.
(Originally appeared in the September 27, 2004 issue of The Nikkei Weekly, reproduced here with permission.)