Debate on fall university enrollment could be segue to fundamental educational reform

With the University of Tokyo considering the possibility of switching to a school year that begins in the fall — as opposed to the current schedule that starts in spring — the debate on fall enrollment is gaining momentum. We hope that the involved parties flesh out the details to prevent the idea from ending up as mere talk. This will likely provide an opportunity to progress to further university education reforms.

Several big challenges lie ahead, however. First, there is the issue of whether the University of Tokyo will adopt the schedule change on its own. If the school chooses to maintain its current entrance exam schedule (taken by applicants in February and March), what will students do for half a year until they start classes? Will this negatively affect their chances of finding employment later in life, considering most business years begin in April? None of these questions have any easy answers.

In this rapidly globalizing era, attracting talented foreign students and researchers from beyond the country’s borders and promoting exchange and intellectual stimulation to establish Japan’s footing as a world-class center of higher education and research is the main argument for adopting fall enrollment. At the same time, proponents say, the change in schedule would allow Japanese students better opportunities to study overseas, and thereby to improve their communication skills.

The majority of educational institutions around the world start their school year in the fall, and this difference between Japan and the rest of the world has long been cited as an obstacle to Japan’s internationalization. Data show that 2.7 percent of University of Tokyo students were from overseas in the 2009 school year, while the percentage of international students at many universities in the West is between 20 and 29 percent. While Japan is handicapped in its ability to attract international students because it is a non-English-speaking country, the current state of affairs must be improved.

This debate itself did not emerge just yesterday.

In the 1980s, the Ad Hoc Council for Educational Reform made adapting Japanese education to the exigencies of internationalization one of its main pillars, and brought up the possibility of shifting the school year to an autumn start. The Education Rebuilding Council, in its second report in 2007, strongly sought a switch to September enrollment, and suggested that the “gap year” between when students graduate high school in March and start university in September be dedicated to activities like volunteer work.

Under the current system, schools are permitted at their own discretion to allow students to enroll in the fall, and it is not uncommon for schools to have some fall-enrollment slots. The latest University of Tokyo move, however, is concerned with a more fundamental change in the system.

A job fair is flooded with a throng of university students in Sendai on May 12. (Mainichi)

A job fair is flooded with a throng of university students in Sendai on May 12. (Mainichi)

The debate is expected to be split on whether the University of Tokyo should undertake this sweeping reform on its own, a group of schools should do so together, or if such changes should be made all at once across the board. However, the various possible selection and implementation processes will likely progress a lot faster if instead of concerning themselves with whether all the schools are in lock step with each other, they tackle the challenges that they face individually. It wouldn’t be too late if the changes made by individual universities later spread to other universities and then higher education as a whole.

Adopting fall enrollment only, or to permit fall enrollment alongside spring enrollment is another point of contention. Such coexistence is not impossible, but would be pointless if it were to undermine the purpose of autumn enrollment.

The period before enrollment would become a time used to build up momentum toward learning. Creating a detailed method of doing so is bound to inform the cultivation of a sense of purpose, the longstanding challenge of university education.

The University of Tokyo’s deliberations are significant only if it contributes to the larger discussion of comprehensive education reform. Because of this, it is unfortunate that the issue of entrance exams is being excluded from the debate.

In this globalizing world, it is necessary for us to take our time and employ innovative methods for selecting students. Further debate is called for to this end.

(Mainichi, Jul 29)

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