Tokyo U. to introduce gap year / Special period meant to enhance students’ experience in society (The Yomiuri Shimbun, Nov.15)
The University of Tokyo has decided to introduce a special leave-of-absence system for students who newly enroll in the 2013 academic year, which will allow them to do volunteer work, study abroad and engage in other activities for a year, it has been learned.

University sources said Tuesday that about 30 new students will be eligible to apply for the new system.

The system is designed to allow students to reflect on or rediscover reasons why they are studying by deepening their experience in society, according to sources.

During the special leave period, students will not have to pay tuition fees, and will be allowed to engage in activities usually not permitted during a regular leave of absence, such as overseas travel and paid internships.

The university’s internal conference approved the introduction of the new system, named “Freshers’ Leave Year Program” (FLY Program), on Tuesday.

The special leave period is equivalent to “gap years” at universities in other countries including the United States, in which young students can postpone enrollment for a year to expand their horizons by immersing themselves in society.

The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry says universities in Japan have been reluctant to introduce such a system because students who participate in it need five years to graduate.

Students who pass the university’s entrance exam and wish to use the system are required to submit applications when they go through the enrollment process in March. After screening the applications, the university decides in late April which students will be awarded a special leave.

The university will provide financial assistance to some of the selected students, depending on their stated activities. Also, teaching staff will remain in regular contact with students until they return to university in April of the following year.

Although students cannot attend classes during the one-year special leave, they will have access to university facilities, such as libraries. When they return to start classes in April, they will be required to submit a report on their activities during the period.

The selected students will be allowed to freely plan activities that are not permitted under a conventional leave of absence.

For instance, they would be permitted to engage in part-time employment for six months, and then depart for a trip overseas. They would also be allowed to secure internships with companies abroad.

The students will be required to take responsibility for their activities during the period, such as ensuring their safety and maintaining their academic capabilities.

Akita International University in Akita launched a similar system dubbed an “entrance exam for gap year” in the 2008 academic year.

Under the system, up to 10 applicants are selected for enrollment on condition that they engage in activities that contribute to society until they commence their studies at the university in September.

Keio University introduced a system in its 2009 academic year in which most tuition fees are waived for students who take a leave of absence to engage in volunteer work or study abroad. However, newly enrolled students cannot apply for the system.

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Encourage critical thinking

Fumihiko Ito / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer

 

The University of Tokyo’s FLY (Freshers’ Leave Year) Program aims to change the passive attitude of students who study only for the sake of passing entrance exams, and to foster the habit of students thinking for themselves through experience in society.

Earlier this year, the university introduced a plan to start the academic year in autumn, giving all new students enrolled for September a six-month break until their first school year begins.

However, many people both inside and outside the university criticized the plan, saying only a few new students have enough financial and intellectual resources to spend a half-year period productively.

In response, the university devised a new policy in September that allows students permitted to enroll in April to enter pre-enrollment programs prepared by the university until their studies commence in September.

As a result of the autumn enrollment system, emphasis was put on experience-oriented activities. The university wants the FLY Program introduced at an early date as it hopes to increase the number of students who are up for the challenge of experience-oriented activities.

University executives have voiced a sense of urgency over a recent trend in students becoming more passive and inward-looking.

Will the new system throw a wrench in the country’s social norms and corporate employment practices, which tell students that the best way to reach their goals is to take the shortest, straightest route, and avoid detours?

Japanese society itself is being tested as to how it handles and evaluates the new types of challenges made by young people.

(Nov. 15, 2012)