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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:04 03/09/2007
August 15, 2005

What to Do with Japanese Universities - A Proposal for Education Reform

Takashi INOGUCHI (Professor, Chuo University)

Since the Meiji Restoration, Japan's higher education system has been based on applied sciences. The origin of the University of Tokyo is applied science schools such as a medical school, a foreign language school and an engineering school, which were combined to become the Imperial University of Tokyo. Its departments centered around applied sciences such as medicine, engineering, agriculture, foreign languages, law, economics and education. The main purpose of Japan's higher education was to facilitate western-style civilization and economic development with military strength by importing and endogenizing western technologies, industries and social systems. University graduates were placed on the frontiers of this national mission, and national elites were few in number but high in motivation and pride.

As the number and size of universities were increasing, the fiction that national elites were being educated remained intact. The department system based on applied sciences did not change due to the emphasis on securing employment for graduates. Universities mainly consisted of large departments, rather than schools or colleges. In particular, law departments and economics departments were huge in size with a "high" level of labor productivity of a relatively small faculty turning out a large number of graduates, who were readily absorbed in the job markets in the past. On the other hand, political science and sociology were regarded as "anti-government" and not useful in job placement. This may explain why law and economics have been so dominant, while political science and sociology have been almost non-existent in the form of independent departments in Japan.

This situation did not change even in post-war Japan under the Allied occupation, when new disciplines should have sprung out of freedom and democracy. Probably the only change in the post-war period has been a tremendous increase in the number of colleges and universities, but with the same education system as in the pre-war period. The old disciplines have been maintained by emphasizing job opportunities for graduates as a pretext, if not explicitly referring to the prevention of students from becoming anti-government or revolutionary. At any rate, this situation has been continued, and today graduates from large departments in applied disciplines are having a hard time finding jobs because of their shallow and low quality education at the undergraduate level.

Then what to do with Japanese universities? First, college education should be for students to search for truth and humanity. Its emphasis should be to draw out and enhance human potential for higher human development, while applied sciences should be left to graduate programs at professional schools. Although applied sciences have experienced astronomical expansion due to rapid technological progress in recent years and there appears to be so much to learn in applied fields even by undergraduate students, college education should center around core subjects to facilitate human development, where core subjects include philosophy, history and literature, which must be learned by every student regardless of his or her major.

In teaching core subjects, we should take account of Japanese and English languages as important means of communication by spending more than two hours a day for Japanese with emphasis on logical thinking and emotional expression and setting aside more than four hours a day for English in small classes with twenty students per teacher. Furthermore, second foreign languages should also be taught for at least six hours a week.

For this purpose, teachers need training to improve their teaching abilities and methods. In other words, they must be empowered so that they can teach not only in their specialized fields at graduate schools, but also in core subjects at undergraduate colleges. Otherwise, they would be out of job in the future.

What is really needed now is to reform the antiquated department system, since departments are just too big, while the age of mass production and mass consumption has long passed. Departments should be reorganized into smaller and more responsive units with their own discretion over curricula, personnel and accounting in order to offer educational services to their clients in an "on-demand" fashion. On the other hand, university headquarters should set general directions for the purpose of academic excellence and educational improvements as well as student placement and outside funding. Universities will have to change their organizational principles drastically, as students and the public are becoming increasingly critical of the existing system of higher education.

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