Japan aims for original ideas

February 7, 1997

JAPANESE prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto has announced an overhaul of the country's troubled education system including attempts to introduce greater diversity by giving universities more freedom to develop their own undergraduate programmes.

It is hoped that a more flexible choice of degree courses will enable universities to cater for a wider range of skills and abilities among students. The proposals are expected to alter the much-criticised entry exams to university and college that encourage schools to make pupils learn by rote.

Reform of the university entrance system will persuade schools to devote more time to the development of original and creative thinking.

"The present system just crams knowledge into children's heads," the prime minister agreed in his speech. "It values memorisation too much."

Demands for change have been fuelled by evidence that Japanese companies are becoming less competitive. Reform groups argue that the development of graduates with more original thinking skills, is essential for a strong economy and a prosperous society in the 21st century.

Higher education is criticised for not being demanding enough. Lax graduation standards, and the absence of effective quality checks, encourages students to skip lectures and socialise instead. Earlier specialisation and a wider choice of courses, it is argued, will encourage students to take more interest in their studies and lead to greater productivity.

The hiring practices of large companies, particularly those which only recruit graduates from a few selected universities, is also blamed for the casual undergraduate work ethic.

"The present system doesn't allow young people to decide dreams, hopes and targets by themselves," the prime minister said in reference to the hiring practices of leading employers.

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