The Chronicle, October 2, 2011

By Da­vid Mc­Neill


When Japan was hit by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami in March, casualties at the nation’s universities were mercifully low. The reason: Campuses were mostly empty as thousands of students were at home till April, when Japan’s academic year begins.

That’s been one of the few times when Ja­pan’s edu­ca­tion­al re­form­ers have ap­plaud­ed the spring start, which is widely seen as causing headaches. It puts the na­tion’s universities out of sync with most of the plan­et, huge­ly com­pli­cat­ing ex­changes, the hir­ing of for­eign facul­ty, and the re­cruit­ing of overseas students.

Few­er than 3 per­cent of stu­dents at Ja­pan’s most pres­ti­gious high­er-edu­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tion, the University of To­kyo, are from abroad, a long way be­hind top West­ern col­leges. Increasing that percentage requires bring­ing the ac­a­dem­ic cal­en­dar into line with else­where, says Ma­sa­ko Egawa, an executive vice president at the university. “In­ter­na­tion­al­iz­ing edu­ca­tion and re­search is a very, very high pri­or­i­ty for us, and we must bring Ja­pan in sync with oth­er coun­tries to a­chieve that.”

Dis­cus­sion on start­ing in the fall and grad­u­at­ing Jap­a­nese stu­dents in the late spring or fall has been around since the 1980s, but the de­bate has moved up a gear with news that the University of To­kyo, known as Todai, is mull­ing the move. An in­ter­nal pan­el is ex­pect­ed to re­port by the end the year.

Its deci­sion could fun­da­men­tal­ly al­ter the na­tion’s en­tire high­er-edu­ca­tion system, pre­dicts Akiyoshi Yo­ne­za­wa, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Graduate School of International Development at Na­goy­a University. “If Todai changes, the oth­er top in­sti­tu­tions will fol­low, and that will change the cul­ture of uni­ver­si­ties,” he says.

The ar­gu­ments for and against have been well re­hearsed. Shift­ing to fall en­roll­ment would har­mo­nize the world’s third-larg­est edu­ca­tion system with the West, making it eas­i­er for Jap­a­nese uni­ver­si­ties to at­tract for­eign tal­ent and stim­u­late ac­a­dem­ic co­op­er­a­tion. Ms. Egawa cites stu­dent ex­changes with Yale University as just one area that suf­fers un­der the cur­rent system, which keeps Jap­a­nese stu­dents in class­rooms un­til July. Stu­dents, she says, “miss parts of reg­u­lar courses if they go to sum­mer school in Yale.”

Synchronizing with the Western calendar would be popular among faculty members as well, says Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Tokyo’s Sophia University. “There may be a small minority who would worry that the synchronization might lead to student brain drain—competitive students going to U.S. universities—but I doubt that that would be much of a factor.”

Competition for Talent

But the bar­ri­ers to change are con­sid­er­a­ble. For one thing, Jap­a­nese com­pa­nies hire uni­ver­si­ty grad­u­ates en mas­se in March, right after graduation, in­stead of through­out the year. With­out a change in six dec­ades of cor­po­rate hir­ing prac­tices, hun­dreds of thou­sands of grad­u­at­ing stu­dents would have to wait months to work, till March of the fol­low­ing year. Econ­o­mists pon­der the im­pact on al­ready bur­dened house­holds of having to sup­port graduates till the first pay­check ar­rives.

Then there are uni­ver­si­ty en­trance ex­ams, taken by high-school stu­dents in January and February. What will those stu­dents do till the start of uni­ver­si­ty class­es in Sep­tem­ber, and how would the six-month gap af­fect al­ready de­clin­ing math and sci­ence skills? One idea, says Ms. Egawa, is to as­sign vol­un­teer work or over­seas study dur­ing the lull. “Com­pared to stu­dents from oth­er coun­tries, the range of stu­dent ex­pe­ri­ences in Ja­pan is nar­row,” she points out. “That six months might cre­ate a win­dow for stu­dents to do some­thing oth­er than just cram­ming for an exam.”

The de­bate has be­come more press­ing as prob­lems in Ja­pan’s high­er-edu­ca­tion sec­tor grow. The March dis­as­ter has bad­ly dent­ed a gov­ern­ment plan to al­most tri­ple the num­ber of for­eign stu­dents, to 300,000, which many ob­serv­ers viewed as op­ti­mis­tic any­way. Jap­a­nese uni­ver­si­ties are also send­ing too few stu­dents to study a­broad and in­creas­ing­ly los­ing the com­pet­i­tive bat­tle to re­cruit for­eign ac­a­dem­ic tal­ent to more dynam­ic re­gion­al ri­vals like Hong Kong, Sin­ga­pore, and even South Ko­re­a.

Some of the coun­try’s top uni­ver­si­ties al­ready, in ef­fect, run dual sys­tems, en­roll­ing the bulk of their un­der­grad­u­ates in the spring and bring­ing in for­eign mas­ter’s and Ph.D. stu­dents in the fall, at their own dis­cre­tion. Can that be ex­tend­ed to in­clude ev­ery stu­dent in the coun­try?

Mr. Yo­ne­za­wa is skep­ti­cal.

“Most lo­cal uni­ver­si­ties ca­ter to Jap­a­nese needs and don’t have to meet glob­al stand­ards.” He says it is “not realistic” that stu­dents can af­ford a half-year break, ei­ther fi­nan­cial­ly or ac­a­demi­cal­ly.

Ei­ther way, he con­cludes, the rest of the coun­try can­not make the leap with­out the University of To­kyo, which has pro­vid­ed many of the country’s po­lit­i­cal, in­dus­tri­al, and ac­a­dem­ic lead­ers for over a cen­tu­ry.

Sources in­side the uni­ver­si­ty say the pan­el dis­cus­sion is currently bal­anced 50-50 for and against the change. What­ev­er the fi­nal re­sult, it is like­ly to spark an­oth­er round of de­bate on why Japanese uni­ver­si­ties are strug­gling to in­ter­na­tion­al­ize—and what can be done to fix it.