Japan shakes off its torpor

November 6, 1998

Tokyo. A radical shakeup of Japan's stagnant higher education was recommended last week by the university council that advises the government. The council proposed tougher standards on staff and students to strengthen the country's intellectual reputation.

It called on each university to establish an advisory council of "outside experts" to assess academic standards from April 2000. A further expert panel should monitor the educational and research results of national universities, including the prestigious Tokyo and Kyoto universities.

University graduation should be made more difficult, said the council. This could mean limiting students in the number of course credits they take a year to stop the practice of amassing of required credits in the first three years of four-year degrees, leaving the final year free for job hunting.

Unemployment for Japanese aged between 25 and 34 now stands at a postwar high of 4.6 per cent. The rate would be far higher by European or United States standards of counting the jobless.

Aspiring students sit gruelling entrance exams but once at university they are accused of spending too much time on extracurricular activities and socialising.

The Yomiuri Shimbun, which claims the world's highest newspaper circulation, was blunt about the state of higher education: "There are two central reasons for the stagnation: One is lazy students who would rather hit the night spots than hit the books, and the other is inertia of the universities as organisations. The two factors are interwoven."

Reform of the gruelling university entrance exams is to be discussed by another government panel, the Central Council for Education. Critics say the exams drive students to stuff their heads with fragmented knowledge.

"It is no wonder that so many students complain of feeling emotionally drained the moment they begin their studies. A new assessment mechanism is necessary to measure students' attitude and enthusiasm with respect to learning. It should also gauge how much knowledge the students are actually absorbing while in school," said Yomiuri Shimbun.

Postgraduate studies in public policy, international development and management also need to be nurtured and the number of postgraduates raised above the anticipated number of 250,000 by the year 2010, the council proposes.

Economic difficulties are generating more graduate school enrolments, particularly for vocational courses, writes John Greenlees in Tokyo. Unemployment has also spurred adults to update qualifications. About 500 graduate courses at 219 universities have reserved places for adults.

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