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Students choose failure over uncertainty

Broken job-hunting system has college seniors retaking year

by Chris Burgess

“Could you please fail me?” As a university lecturer, it is by no means unusual to have seniors drop by to check if they have sufficient credits to graduate. However, I was flabbergasted by this recent visitor who wanted not reassurance – she was on track to graduate – but rather my cooperation in failing her.

The story behind this unexpected request was that since she had yet to secure an offer of employment (“naitei”), she wanted to retake the year; that way she would still be able to apply to companies as a new graduate (“shinsotsu”). Apparently, companies in Japan tend to look more favorably on shinsotsu – however many years it has taken for them to graduate – than on those who have graduated in four years and spent some time acquiring qualifications, skills and experience outside university.

This incident highlights one of the many problems with the Japanese job-hunting (“shukatsu”) system. These problems are increasingly being highlighted by the media, prompted by the worst recession in a generation: As of Dec. 1 only 68.85% of final-year students had found jobs. In November last year, there was even a protest march in Shinjuku by students – some holding banners reading “shukatsu no bakayaro” (Job search sucks) – deriding the job-hunting process as a time-consuming farce and denouncing companies for placing unreasonable demands on job-hunters.

Currently, shukatsu is split into two stages. The first stage, beginning in the October of a student’s third year, is a publicity stage where students attend orientations and submit applications called “entry sheets.” The second stage, beginning right at the start of their final year, is a selection stage made up of tests and interviews. By the time a provisional offer of employment, or naitei, is sent to successful applicants, usually around October, students have typically contacted dozens of companies and spent hundreds of hours attending recruitment fairs and job interviews. Interestingly, around 30 percent of new recruits quit their companies within the first three years.

The history of the shukatsu system is generally one of friction between companies who want to hire the best graduates as soon as possible and universities who want students to be able to devote themselves to their studies. The first agreement between the two parties came in 1953 as a response to labor shortages, but this was scrapped in 1962 as companies began recruiting earlier and earlier. A new agreement was signed in 1972 but was abandoned in 1997 for similar reasons. Today, a voluntary code does exist but is widely flouted.

A number of organizations have proposed reforms to establish a new agreement on the shukatsu system. The Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren) has proposed delaying the start of job-hunting for third-year students by two months, from the current October to December. The Japan Association of Corporate Executives (Keizai Doyukai) has pushed for the date to be deferred even further, to March. They have also said that shinsotsu should be defined more broadly, to those who have graduated within the last three years, a move also supported by the government. Finally, the Japan Foreign Trade Council (Nihon Boekikai) has suggested postponing the selection stage from April to August, in order to allow final-year students to concentrate more on their studies.

While some companies have adopted the new proposals, many remain reluctant, fearful of losing the best students to competitors. The irony is that although companies want to employ superior students with quality educations, the current shukatsu system, as conducted by these same companies, ensures this is not possible.

Keidanren polls have consistently shown that the qualities most valued by employers are communication ability, independence and “fighting spirit.” However, despite the idea that a year spent studying or doing volunteer work abroad would likely foster such qualities, the current system discourages young people from making such “unorthodox” choices, which they fear will negatively affect future employment chances. For example, since 2004 there has been a marked drop in Japanese students studying abroad, particularly in the U.S., where Japanese students were once the dominant group. Moreover, the number of applicants for Japanese Overseas Cooperation Volunteers (seinen kaigai kyoryokutai) was only 4,700 in 2009 – half the number that applied in the 1990s. These figures have prompted much criticism in the media of “inward-looking” Japanese youth, criticism that rarely takes into account the influence of the shukatsu system.

Unable to find the qualities they seek in domestic students, Japanese companies in recent years have been turning to foreign students, frequently perceived as more motivated, enthusiastic and active.

A recent survey of 222 large companies in the Yomiuri Shimbun showed that more than 83 percent planned either to maintain or increase recruitment of international students; none planned to decrease the number. A good example is Sony, which recently announced that from 2013, 30 percent of new employees would be non-Japanese, double the 2011 figure. Such increased competition means Japanese students will have to put even more time and effort into shukatsu – to the further detriment of their education.

The low quality of Japan’s higher education system is inextricably tied up with the country’s job-hunting system. When job-hunting activities start in the second-semester of their third year, absences become common. However, this is of little consequence to employers, which have absolutely no interest in grades (companies do not ask to see academic transcripts during the hiring process). In fact, employers hire graduates not on the basis of academic performance but largely on the reputation of their university. Thus, Japanese university life is frequently characterized as “leisure land,” a four-year moratorium of rest and relaxation between “examination hell” and entry into society. In other words, Japanese students are, in general, not motivated for the simple reason that there is absolutely no need for them to study: A straight-A student who graduates in four years has little or no advantage over the student who scrapes through in five or six.

Responding to calls for the “internationalization” of education, the ministry of education (MEXT) has in recent years stressed the need for universities to be globally competitive and to attract high-quality human resources. The Global 30 project, a government initiative that aims to upgrade a number of existing universities to form a select hub of elite institutions for receiving and educating international students, is a good example. The problem is, of course, that the quality of Japanese higher education is so poor that at the moment foreign students have to be paid in the form of generous government scholarships to study here.. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that if Japan is to attract large numbers of fee-paying foreign students, the quality of the education offered -in particular, the motivation of its students – must first be significantly improved. And for that to happen, a major overhaul of the shukatsu system is required.

A good first step would be to press employers to take grades seriously. One simple suggestion that would cost nothing is to make the naitei conditional on a specific cumulative grade point average. GPA is a standardized grading system that more and more Japanese universities are adopting. If the student fails to achieve the required GPA on graduation, the job offer would automatically be withdrawn. This would have the effect of motivating large numbers of students to attend class punctually, participate actively and submit work of a decent standard on time. Such a solution would do away with the nonsense that is the current system, where it can be more advantageous to fail than to pass.

Send comments on this issue and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.

Chris Burgess lectures in Japanese and Australian studies at Tsuda College. For more on the Global 30 and the internationalisation of Japanese higher education, see the 2010 paper by Burgess et al in Globalization, Societies, and Education (8:4) (www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~db=all~content=a931250876~frm=titlelink)