Lessons from Japan’s higher education system
Published: Friday, November 9, 2012
Updated: Friday, November 9, 2012 14:11
From the post-World War 2 era until the late eighties, Japan stood unrivaled as the premier electronics and automobile exporter in the world. From Sony to Toyota, the quality and reliability of Japanese products set a standard to which many western manufacturers still aspire.
The success of these Japanese products are owed in part to the uncompromising nature of their creators. Both in work and in life, the Japanese value repetition, and it is this repetition that fuels their success. Consistency leads to mastery.
This philosophy of constant refinement does not seem to spill over into other areas of Japanese life, however. Historically, higher education has been a closed system in Japan; high school students spend the majority of their waking hours cramming for the infamous entrance exam--an arbitrary test of cognitive ability. Once accepted into a college or university, the student gets on the career fast track, majoring most often in business or engineering.
The essence of the closed system is derived from the domestic employment market, which places unique demands on students. These expectations essentially revolve around trainability instead of outstanding ability in absolute terms, as Kariya Takehiko puts it in his 2011 article, “Higher Education and the Japanese Disease.” This results in rather startling deficiencies, from a global perspective, as the budding Japanese worker is prepared only for competition within a static, domestic environment.
In North America, the melting pot of the world, globalization has been happening to us since Ellis Island opened its first immigrant station in 1892. It’s difficult to imagine the United States as a homogenized nation where nearly everyone aspires to work for the same company. Indeed, we look outward almost involuntarily due to our mixed heritages and ancestries. The Japanese, conversely, have had historical tendencies toward isolationism.
It is no wonder, then, that what was once a winning philosophy for Japanese colleges and corporations alike--to cultivate trainable students for domestic jobs--is showing wear and tear in the age of globalization. Repetition eventually begets refinement and reevaluation, and the Japanese have some catching up to do.
Takehiko, a professor of Japanese sociology and fellow of St. Antony’s College, Oxford, describes the issue as a “trilemma” in which three irreconcilable factors struggle to coexist. These factors are as follows: maintaining standards, equalizing opportunities--major expansion of higher education--and keeping the fiscal burden on the state to a sustainable level.
The difficulties in achieving these goals become exacerbated when considering Japan’s shrinking college-age population and stagnating economy.
As opposed to the United States, where the majority of college students attend public institutions, approximately 80% of Japanese students attend private universities, according to Takehiko. Japan has expanded its higher education sector by placing the bulk of the financial burden on household incomes rather than on the state. While seemingly a product of its time, the mass-marketization of education breeds an undesirable outlook on education in general.
As one might expect, the Japanese government’s hands-off approach to higher education paints this commodity as a private privilege rather than a sociocultural responsibility. Under this system, in other words, the benefit is seen to be born on a personal level; the individual involved does indeed view his or her education solely as a passport into the workplace. As a result, the purely intellectual value of education is lost almost entirely.
Having satisfied two points in their trilemma--widening access and eased fiscal burdens on the state--the Japanese struggle to maintain quality in the classroom. The decrease in Japan’s 18-year old population means that enrollment quotas aren’t filling up as consistently as they used to, compelling universities to lower their standards in order to approve more applications. At the same time, corporations continue to move their hiring seasons forward in order to attract the dwindling talent before it ripens.
Like a snowball, earlier hiring seasons means college juniors are starting the job hunt before their academic years end, leading to rushed graduations and half-baked entry-level workers. Barely ready for the domestic corporate grind, these 3-year lecture hall graduates simply have nothing to offer the world at-large.
In an April article for The Guardian, Hitotsubashi University Global Education Program Director Hiroshi Ota examines what he calls the “ever-intensifying global talent war.” Despite its high population density, Japan has focused its globalization efforts on inbound rather than outbound channels. In what’s been coined that “brain-gain” initiative, Ota explains, many private institutions are now aggressively recruiting international students--primarily from China--to come and fill their classrooms.
Not only does Japan need to foster an image of quality in order to attract international students, but it must reshape its perception of education as a whole. This paradigm shift comes at a time when the country is not only economically unstable, but geologically so as well.