Yomiuri Shimbun
Educational Renaissance / AIU has high standards, low profile

Mina Matsumoto / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer

The following is excerpted from The Yomiuri Shimbun’s Educational Renaissance series. This part of the series reports on some of the ambitious efforts higher educational institutions are making to improve undergraduate programs.
AKITA–Under a blanket of January snow, the campus of Akita International University (AIU) was seemingly calm. But indoors, lively discussions were taking place in Japanese and English among students and teachers.

In one classroom, for example, a British instructor was showing his Japanese students images of clay figures unearthed from ancient burial mounds and asking what these items might suggest about the people who had made them in ancient times.

The instructor was leading a lesson discussing Japanese views on life and death, drawing on sources of data ranging from archaeological digs to modern-day manga stories. One of his students responded to the question by saying they probably had a fear of death.

In a different classroom, another native-English-speaking instructor and his Japanese students were discussing Japan’s diplomatic policies during and after the Meiji period (1868-1912).

Meanwhile, Associate Prof. Hiromi Sano, 60, was holding a lesson exclusively for foreign students. This year, AIU had about 730 such students, accounting for more than 10 percent of the student body.

Dealing with current affairs, Sano’s course, conducted in Japanese, always used articles from Japanese newspapers as its main material. On the day of The Yomiuri Shimbun’s visit, her students discussed the differences among the comments that various Japanese newspapers made regarding the inaugural address of U.S. President Barack Obama.

“For global citizens, it’s crucial to understand, first of all, the differences of people [from other cultures],” Sano said, describing one of the aims of these courses.

Established in 2004 by the Akita prefectural government, AIU adopted a mission statement based on the concept of “international liberal arts.” It aims at instilling in students “the practical skills needed to play an active role in the international community.”

The AIU mission statement was inspired by overseas institutions that focus on what kind of skills they can help their students acquire.

To allow itself to employ flexible management and educational programs, AIU was established as an independent administrative institution, thus becoming the first higher educational institution set up by a prefectural or municipal government to hold such status. Since then, it has introduced many innovative teaching methods.

The courses for its Japanese students are taught only in English, but those up to the sophomore year focus on their home country’s history, culture, politics and economics.

“You cannot be called global citizens merely because you have language skills,” AIU President Mineo Nakajima, 72, said. “If you have a solid identity as Japanese, you can respect different cultures and develop real communication skills.” At entrance ceremonies, the president always recommends that freshmen read Bushido, a book written in English by educator Inazo Nitobe (1862-1933).

AIU accepts only about 100 freshmen every year to allow its teachers to have fewer students to deal with. The university also tries to expose its students as much as possible to different cultures. For example, Japanese students are required to live in a foreign-student dormitory during their first year, and they also have to spend one year studying overseas during their years at AIU.

The university employs strict evaluation systems for students’ learning, such as a metric called a grade point average (GPA), under which grades for each course a student takes are given a numerical value to calculate the student’s average score. This average is used to decide if the student can move up to the next year or even graduate depending on whether it reaches a required standard.

According to the Education, Science and Technology Ministry, nearly 300 higher educational institutions–or about 40 percent–used the GPA system during the 2007 academic year.

At AIU, if a student’s GPA falls below a predetermined level over three consecutive semesters, the student receives a warning that he or she is at risk of being expelled–but no such warning has been issued so far.

“There are no easy courses. It’s quite hard,” a 20-year-old woman student said.

Her remark is supported by at least one statistic: Although AIU produced its first graduating class last spring, only 47.1 percent of the students who had enrolled four years earlier were able to graduate on schedule.

At AIU, the students aren’t the only ones subject to strict evaluations. For all the 49 full-time instructors–half of whom are non-Japanese–the institution issues three-year contracts under an annual salary system.

Once every semester, their lessons are observed by deans and colleagues, who note the way teachers lead lessons and what kinds of teaching materials they use.

These peer evaluations, and those by students, serve as the main criteria for the university to decide the teacher’s salary for the following year. It has not been unusual for it to decline to extend contracts for teachers whose performance is deemed to have fallen short.

Because its strict standards seem to be reflected in the quality of its students, AIU enjoys confidence from the companies that have employed its graduates. Corporate recruiters have traveled to interview students on campus, and some have even decided to employ them on the spot.

Many trading houses and manufacturers with global operations are interested in hiring AIU students, as they assume them to have advanced language and negotiation skills. All of the institution’s first graduates last year “got their positions at companies or graduate schools as they wished,” an official of AIU’s career division said, adding that those who spent a fifth year at AIU will also follow the same path this spring.

Nonetheless, AIU’s profile among prospective students and their parents is not as high as it is in the business sector.

Visitors to the administrative building on the campus may first notice a chart posted at the entrance. Created by a juku cram school, the chart shows the difficulty levels of entering various higher educational institutions. AIU is ranked at the top in terms of deviation scores, a measure of how difficult the entrance exam is.

“We still must use our high deviation scores to promote our school,” Nakajima lamented. “Unfortunately, that’s just part of the teething troubles young universities must go through.”
Japan’s universities ‘focusing on abstractions’
With institutions of higher learning being lambasted over failing to imbue their students with real-world skills, there has been much discussion over what kind of knowledge students should possess upon graduating.

Acknowledging such criticism, the Central Council on Education, an advisory panel to the education minister, compiled a report in December on how to improve undergraduate programs. In it, the panel proposed graduation requirements irrespective of major. These include cultural awareness, self-management and career-oriented practical skills, such as communication and problem-solving.

The report says today’s Japanese tertiary schools have educational goals much more abstract than those at higher learning institutions in other developed countries, where the focus tends to be on helping students acquire skills. It also adds that Japan’s undergraduate programs have become “too diversified,” and that they do not guarantee a minimum standard in any major.

(Mar. 26, 2009) Yomiuri Shimbun

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AIU website

From Akita, A Global Standard Asahi Shimbun (Jan 26, 2009)