Fast-track plans annoy old guard

June 13, 1997

From Tokyo to Tallinn attempts are being made to overhaul traditional university matriculation

Modest proposals by the Japanese education ministry for a fast-track system in which above-average students would be eligible for college entrance at 17, one year earlier than normal, have been attacked by academics as too radical.

The plan would limit the system to high school students excelling in either mathematics or physics. But Tsutomu Kimura, president of Tokyo Institute of Technology, said: "If introduced, this system would cause an upheaval in Japanese society and the world of education, which at present allows no leeway because it sticks rigidly to the age limit."

A leading critic of the proposal, which is almost sure to be implemented, is the Mathematical Society of Japan, which is demanding that the plan be dropped. The society believes it would not benefit students to enter college a year earlier at the expense of "learning common sense".

A spokesman for the society said: "Mathematics is very useful in nurturing logical thinking and it is a very important subject for general education. If the new system was adopted people may view mathematics as a special subject, contributing to the unpopularity of science and mathematics."

Japan's present school education law stipulates the number of years for each educational level, and requires that before entering university students must have graduated from a high school, completed 12 years of education, or be deemed to have an equivalent level of academic competence.

What the law does not allow is for students to skip grades at any academic stage, even if they are considered exceptional pupils. While the minimum age for admission to university is not specified, a student will in reality be at least 18 after 12 years of schooling.

Although the singling out of individuals for elitist fast tracking is anathema to a society that prides itself on homogeneity, some changes to benefit above-average students have already been made.

Undergraduates usually study for four years under the Japanese system, but following a revision of the law in 1989, students who have studied for at least three years and demonstrated academic excellence are now eligible to enter postgraduate courses. More than ten universities have adopted this system.

In another scheme, Nagoya University began granting university credits last year to high school students who showed a high degree of academic excellence in experimental science courses offered by the university. But students still have to take the usual university entrance exams to earn a place.

In contrast, Keio University's ultra high-tech SFC campus near Yokohama accepts applications all year round and will enter students on the strength of interviews, their essay work and high school grades alone.

Under the ministry-proposed plan, high school students who excel in mathematics or physics would be eligible for a similar scheme where they could enter university after completing two years of high school, without taking the usual entrance exam. Like Keio's SFC, admission would be based on recommendations from high schools or tests.

To avoid putting more pressure on already overburdened students, the numbers admitted to universities under the advanced-placement programme will be limited, says the ministry.

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