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Education in 2013: an ‘A’ for ambition, but Japan will have to do better

Students aced PISA exams but the gender gap, university rankings, English levels and overall funding remain key concerns

by Teru Clavel

Special To The Japan Times

The education ministry finally seems to be waking up. Whether due to the Olympic bid or the looming threat from China, for the first time in two decades Japan appears to be moving to correct its inward-looking education policies.

Will 2014 be the year we start to see a genuinely forward-thinking, globalized outlook? The school system has, for the most part, produced superlative academic results among Japanese students compared to their counterparts overseas. However, the rapidly changing global economy, regional tensions and shrinking population suggest huge challenges await the country’s youth on their emergence into the job market in the coming years.

In June, MEXT (the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology) released the Second Basic Plan for the Promotion of Education, which set forth a significant policy shift underlined by progressive goals. These include raising the global status of research universities, improving English competency among teachers and students, a focus on teaching morals, increasing the flow of international students both in and out of Japan, reforming the college entrance exam and more of an emphasis on individual student instruction.

On paper at least, these goals address the country’s current education deficiencies head on. They also form a vital part of the so-called third arrow of Shinzo Abe’s “Abenomics” growth strategy, as the prime minister outlined in a policy document at the time: “It is an urgent matter to raise the level of education up to international standards . . . to foster globally competitive human resources.”

On the world stage, Japan’s greatest academic achievement this year may have been coming in first among OECD nations on the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) exam, which compares the academic performance of 15-year-olds in 65 cities and countries in math, science and reading. Though ranking in seventh place overall behind Asian neighbors Shanghai and South Korea, Japan came in first among all 34 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development group of developed democracies, including much-revered Finland.

Meanwhile, results from the PIAAC (Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies) exam, which measures literacy, numeracy and problem-solving in technology-rich environments — skills crucial for the 21st century — showed mixed results. Japan outperformed all other participants in both literacy and numeracy, beating out Finland, Australia, Sweden and the Netherlands. However, Japanese youths aged 16-24 performed below average in problem-solving in technology-rich environments when compared to young people in South Korea and Finland, for example. Such results can only add to the pressure on MEXT to increase the use of technology in the classroom.

In the higher-education sphere, Japan’s low placement on the Times Higher Education World University Rankings continues to raise concern. While more than half of the Top 50 universities are in the United States, the University of Tokyo was the only Japanese college to make the list, at No. 23. Domestic universities mostly came up short in the rankings due to their lack of global outlook, research and reputation, as well as the absence of a substantial international student body. Abe has announced a goal of ensuring at least 10 Japanese universities make the Top 100 within the decade.

Upon graduation, Japan continues to struggle to provide employment opportunities for its educated young adults. As the unemployment rate among the 15-24 age bracket hovers around 7 percent, those that were neither employed nor in education or training (NEETs) topped 10 percent for the first time in 2011 (the last year for which data is available), up from 8.8 percent in 2005. Even among those that are employed, more than one-third are part-timers.

What’s more, according to the 2013 Global Gender Gap Report released by the World Economic Forum this fall, Japan’s educated women continue to be underutilized. Having dropped in the gender-gap rankings each year since the list’s inception in 2006, the third-largest economy now sits at an embarrassing 105 out of 133 participating countries, below China (No. 69) and Malaysia (No. 102). The report states, “Closing the gap between male and female employment would boost Japan’s GDP by as much as 16 percent.” This is the impetus behind Abe’s target of seeing 30 percent of all senior management positions filled by women by 2020.

And, of course, no discussion on Japanese education is complete without some hand-wringing over English instruction in schools. This year, there have been rumblings to suggest that English lessons will begin two years earlier, in the third grade of elementary school rather than Year 5. There is also talk of an increase in non-Japanese professors at universities, and Abe announced there will be a requirement of a minimum level for TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) scores for both college entry and graduation. Furthermore, as of this academic year, English classes at the senior high school level are supposed to be conducted entirely in English — even by nonfluent Japanese teachers. Classes have traditionally been grammar- and translation-heavy, so it remains to be seen if, when and how such changes will be realized.

Finally, regarding demographics, with Japan’s falling birth rate in mind, MEXT has had to balance a student population that has been shrinking by 100,000 to 200,000 annually over the past decade with the greater future economic needs of the nation. Each year, hundreds of schools are closing across the country — public and private alike. However, on a possibly more optimistic note, the number of teachers has been increasing by 1,000 to 2,000 annually over past decade.

Lofty ambitions aside, the billion-dollar question is whether the government will put its money where its mouth is. While Japan invests the equivalent of 3.6 percent of its gross domestic product in public education, this falls far short of the OECD average of 5.8 percent. In contrast, Finland spends 6.8 percent of its GDP on schooling, with the United States at 5.5 percent and South Korea at 4.9.

Comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Larry Goodman

    I found your article interesting and would like to offer some of my recent thoughts. The stats on US education would be very different if they excluded black and underprivileged students. This is an unbiased and objective observation and provides a more focused view of problems in America. There has been much published opinion on Japanese demographics leading to too few workers to support an aging population. This is an obvious challenge, However, there is an upside to this phenomenon. Many parts of the world are being crushed by overpopulation. Perhaps, Japan will become a stable and orderly island of population sanity in a chaotic world. A parallel with Scandinavia could be drawn with three largely homogeneous nations struggling with the assimilation of foreign cultures. I must imagine that Scandinavians must be pondering the advantages of the Japanese model. Would Finland have achieved its success with a more diverse student base? These are some random thoughts stimulated by your article. I am of a liberal political persuasion, and these are objective observations.

  • Jim

    Interesting summary of the state of education in Japan. The issues presented other than test scores (e.g., declining population, gender gap in employment, government spending on education) indicate that improving Japan’s education system and results will require a whole of government approach. As for higher education, it seems like the best way to improve the international prestige of Japanese universities is to attract foreign faculty and students, but I wonder how Japanese universities will do that with other universities in the region competing for those same foreign faculty and students.