As Britain's university sector strives for mass participation, Patricia Walker warns of a system where more means less.
With more than 1,200 universities and junior colleges, and 3 million students, Japan's higher education system is the second largest - after the United States - in the developed world. About half Japan's youth passes through this market-driven system, which has enjoyed continuous growth since 1946. As Britain's university sector hovers on the brink of mass participation, Japan's is now over the brink, with the promise of a university place for anyone prepared to pay.
Japan describes its higher education system as a meritocracy in which institutions set their own entrance exams - the level of difficulty allegedly commensurate with the status of the university.
In fact, as I have observed over the past months, this is a marketing device. There is no relationship between the performance indicators implied in the examination content and that of the undergraduate curriculum it leads to.
The entrance exams are invariably demanding, but many students gain admission without taking them - not one of the English majors in one institution had taken the entrance exam in English. They had satisfied the university of their eligibility "in some other way", an administrator said.
Regardless of institutional ranking, students, or rather their parents, pay dearly for the privilege of a college education, which is de rigueur in Japanese society. Even a junior college can get away with charging £6,000 a year. There are also many extras that do not exist in other university systems, including entrance exam fees and registration fees.
Students earn credit for attendance, but absenteeism is endemic. There are no standardised exams. Indeed, exams and assignments are given at the discretion of the tutor. Students are not assessed until the end of the second semester, so there is no pressure on them or the tutor.
Professors have autonomy with regard to courses delivered. But while there are no module handbooks, mark spreadsheets, external examiners and the like, there is also no accountability and no external performance measures.
The Japanese government shares my concerns and has been talking about motivating students to work. Its solution, typically, is financial, proposing to waive loan repayments for students who do well academically. Many academics, however, try to justify the slack environment by claiming that scholastic aptitude is instilled in students in high school. But in many of these schools, teachers complain of class breakdown.
Despite the criticisms, there has been a general consensus that the Japanese system produced what was needed for a successful economy: competent, malleable young people for government service and industry. But cracks are appearing in that theory. A recent white paper suggested that many young people were choosing part-time rather than full-time employment, and seemed loath to face the challenges of an economic downturn.
Although British education is very different, our government might note some of the problems faced by Japan's mass participation system. It is one in which undergraduates are prepared to squander the resources built up by their parents, happy for daddy to work late into the night to earn the million yen to pay for classes they cannot be bothered to attend or are content to sleep through. Perhaps Japan's students need to be reminded that the sun also sets.
Patricia Walker, director of the English Language Centre, Staffordshire University, taught at the University of Shiga Prefecture in Japan. Her research was supported by the Daiwa and the Sasakawa foundations.