How can it get too late to learn?

Diplomas yield little reward for most older people who go to university in Japan, with their considerable endeavors barely rated by employers at all

by Winifred Bird

Professor Ryusuke Yoneyama was in the middle of explaining to the members of his music-production class why Baroque-era violin bows, which resembled loosely strung archery bows, produced a weaker sound than their contemporary counterparts when he paused to ask a question.

“Has anyone here ever tried archery?” inquired 56-year-old Yoneyama, who is both a professor in the Faculty of Tourism at Wakayama National University and a professional classical oboist.

For a moment, a deathly silence hung over the small, nondescript classroom where 10 students sat around a couple of pushed-together desks. Six young women in heavy eye makeup and three young men in T-shirts and zippered sweatshirts fidgeted in their seats. Then the tenth student raised her hand.

“I have!” said Yoshiko Matsuzaki, an attractive, petite woman sporting a lavender suit-jacket with small black flowers embroidered on it, beige pumps and a chunky bob streaked with a few strands of white. “Just a little,” she added with a sheepish smile.

Matsuzaki is a 57-year-old fourth-year student in the undergraduate tourism program, and it just so happens that she was married to a local archery champion for two decades. As the owner of an audio-equipment store and a classical concert enthusiast, she also knows a few things about Baroque music.

“Wow . . . ” murmured her 20-year-old classmates.

In Iceland, where — according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — 40 percent of entering undergraduate students were aged 25 or older in 2005, Matsuzaki wouldn’t be anything special.

In the United States, too, she would blend right in with the almost 24 percent of students the OECD identified as falling into that category.

In Japan, however, she is one of fewer than 2 percent of undergraduate students who bring their experience as adult members of society into its university classrooms.

Experts agree that adult learners should be flocking to Japan’s universities. According to the Research Institute for Higher Education at Hiroshima University (RIHE), the number of 18-year-olds nationwide fell from 2,007,035 in 1990 to 1,214,389 in 2010 — meaning universities are scrambling to keep their classrooms full.

At the same time, a poor economy and relatively high unemployment rates mean more adults are looking for ways to improve their careers.

“The government and universities are all working to increase the number of older students. At private universities in particular, the number of young students is decreasing, so if they don’t increase their intake of older students they are not going to be financially stable,” said Ikuo Amano, an emeritus professor at the University of Tokyo who has authored more than 25 books on Japan’s higher-education system and is a vocal proponent of educational reform.

The Executive Director for Admissions at Wakayama University, Tatemasa Hirata, put it more simply: “We really want them to come.”

Nevertheless, the numbers remain persistently low. Explanations range from university policies geared to serve traditional full-time students, to social mores that define university students as young — to an employment system that often discriminates against older graduates with prior work experience. For many adults who might otherwise head back to school for a new start in life, the barriers simply prove too high.

For Matsuzaki, it literally took a brush with death to get back to school.

“In high school I was a tennis star, and I got sports scholarship offers from a number of universities,” said Matsuzaki, who grew up in Niigata Prefecture. She didn’t want to keep playing tennis, however, so she turned down the offers and instead moved to Tokyo and found a job at Isetan, a famous department store.

At age 21, however, she headed off to London to study English for two years, and by 24, after she returned, she was married. Over the next two decades she and her husband ran their audio- equipment business and raised one son, Hiroto.

Then, a few days before their 20th wedding anniversary, Matsuzaki’s husband died of brain cancer.

“The whole world went black. I felt so sorry for myself,” she recalled. However, she kept running the store and raising her son alone. Ten years later the other shoe dropped: A doctor told Matsuzaki she, too, might have cancer. Frantic, she went from doctor to doctor until she finally learned that the lump in her breast was benign (she subsequently discovered it was actually malignant and is undergoing treatment) .

“It was like I’d been reborn,” she said. “At that time Hiroto was 18 and applying to colleges. I came across the tourism program at Wakayama University and I said to him, ‘You know what, I’m going to try applying too.’ He said to me, ‘OK, let’s do test prep together!’ If it weren’t for the cancer, I wouldn’t have done it. I applied through a special process for older students, and I got in. I’m so glad I did.”

Matsuzaki says that as the owner of a successful business (which she now runs with her son), her main reason for going back to school was to learn more about a subject that interested her, rather than to improve her career prospects.

According to a recent study by Mark Wright, an associate professor at Nanzan University in Nagoya, that is typical of adult learners in Japan.

Wright asked 514 adult students studying at 29 Japanese universities to divide a list of 126 factors into motivators and barriers to their participation in higher education, then rate the strength of each factor.

The most commonly chosen motivators were those related to intellectual or personal growth, with “My own intellectual curiosity” coming in first. Career improvement was rated as a relatively weak motivator, while factors related to the time and money required for an education were the most commonly identified barriers.

Married women face another set of barriers, because returning to school often means they are less able to fulfill their prescribed role as caretaker and homemaker. Michiko Ishikawa, now 64, said her husband had mixed feelings when she entered Tokyo-based Toyo Gakuen University at the age of 49. Ishikawa had attended a junior college after high school but said she wanted to complete a four-year degree and write a thesis.

“When my husband heard I’d been accepted, he applauded,” she said. “But once I started studying, I couldn’t do the housework like I had until then. When I was studying, he’d make a sort of sour face, as if he wished I was polishing the windows. But I thought, this is really interesting — it’s much more fun to play in this wonderful world of ideas than to polish windows.”

Ishikawa, who before returning to school had taught English at home, went on to complete a masters degree in English literature at Tokyo Kasei University and write a thesis on Kazuo Ishigoro, the U.K.-based award-winning author of 1989′s “Remains of the Day,” among many other novels.

With 29 percent of Japanese currently aged 25 to 34 having completed undergraduate or graduate school, and 54 percent having completed some form of post-secondary education, according to the OECD, Japan has one of the most highly educated populations in the world. Yet for decades, critics both domestic and international have been questioning the quality of higher education in Japan, and universities and government institutions have been struggling to achieve reform.

“The social purpose of higher education in Japan is selection,” said Nanzan University’s Professor Wright.

In fact, as Wright and other authorities explained, students spend most of their three years in high school preparing for the rigorous, fact-based examinations that university admission is centered on. Universities themselves are strictly ranked, and a student’s entrance-exam scores determine the level of school he or she will be able to attend.

In turn, the name and the rank of the university a student attends, rather than a student’s performance there, is widely said to be the main factor employers consider when hiring new graduates.

Satsuki Yamakawa, a 21-year-old senior in Wakayama University’s Faculty of Education, described the impact this system has on students.

“In high school we studied so hard it was like our brains were going to burst from the stress. For the first year or two when we get to university, we just want to be free and relax,” she said. “I hear that in the United States it’s pretty easy to get into college, but hard to graduate. Here it’s the opposite.”

The result of training high school students to be good test-takers, wrote anthropologist Brian McVeigh in his searing 2002 critique of the Japanese education system titled “Japanese Higher Education as Myth,” is that they are often passive and unengaged learners by the time they make it to university. While he admits his observations do not apply to all schools and all students, his book depicts a system whose overall aim is producing diplomas, not true education.

Adult students provide both striking counterpoint and potential remedy to these problems.

“Adult students disrupt the classroom structure in a positive way,” said McVeigh, who taught at Japanese universities from 1989 to 2003.

“I liked that because the other students were so passive. Adult students were always happy to contribute to the classroom discussion. They would raise their hand and question, and the other students’ jaws would drop, because you’re not supposed to do that to a sensei (teacher/professor) in Japan. The adult students were being polite, of course, but they wanted to get the correct information and they didn’t believe everything I said. It was a very healthy dynamic.”

Matsuzaki, the 57-year-old tourism major at Wakayama University, said she makes a conscious effort to boost the lackluster communication skills of her fellow students.

“If it’s too quiet in class, it’s boring! I feel like my mission here is to improve the classroom atmosphere. Whenever the teacher asks a question, I always raise my hand,” she said, adding that as a shy high school student she had literally never volunteered an answer.

Matsuzaki’s efforts go far beyond that, however. As a sophomore she founded a student group aimed at sharpening communication skills. The group of 12 tourism students meets each week to practice job interviews or go on outings to tourist spots where they hand out green tea and strike up conversations with strangers.

In 2009, Matsuzaki even took two students to London, where they dressed in Japanese costumes from the Heian Period (794-1185) and promoted tourism to Wakayama Prefecture’s ancient pilgrimage circuits.

However, while many professors appreciate the benefits students like Matsuzaki bring to the classroom, both McVeigh and Wright noted that some cling to more traditional views of the student-teacher relationship.

“When I asked professors why there weren’t more adult students, in a nonchalant way they’d say it’s ‘a threat to the classroom.’ A few said, ‘If the adult student is older than the sensei, that’s a problem as maybe they know something I don’t know,’ ” McVeigh reported.

Despite such sentiments, over the past two decades many of Japan’s universities have implemented policies aimed at increasing the number of nontraditional students, according to a report compiled by the education ministry’s National Council on Education.

By 2007, Japan had 756 universities, and 495 of them had special undergraduate admission policies in place that allowed some students to replace entrance exams with essays, interviews or other assessment methods (see related story).

Undergraduate and graduate schools with satellite campuses, which make commuting easier for working students, increased in number from 37 in 2000 to 101 in 2007. However, while there are now 753 graduate schools offering both night and afternoon classes, the number of similar programs for undergraduates fell from 113 in 2004 to 47 in 2009.

The Open University of Japan (formerly the University of the Air), a private distance-learning institution set up by the government in 1985, is also popular with older learners: in 2008, 80 percent of the school’s 79,056 undergraduate students were aged over 30. Increasing opportunities for nonaccredited “lifelong learning” has been a major focus for the education ministry in recent years as well.

Some universities are also letting students take more than four years to complete a degree, or take classes one by one, without enrolling full time. Tax breaks exist for companies that pay for employee training, and government subsidies are also available for workers who go back to school at selected programs.

These programs are by no means universal, and many schools continue to focus on young, full-time students. Yet even as more schools cater to nontraditional learners, the numbers of adult undergraduate students taking advantage of these programs has remained stagnant or even fallen.

The explanation, say many analysts, lies not in the university system itself — but in the hiring practices of the corporate world.

“In Japan, the attitude is ‘the younger the better.’ It’s very hard to find a job in a leading industry if you’re over 24 years old. Even if you go to a top school like the University of Tokyo, if you’re over 30 it’s hard to find a first job,” said Shinichi Yamamoto, director of Hiroshima University’s RIHE and a member of the National Council on Education. Higher education expert Amano also noted that few companies award pay raises to returning employees who went off to school.

“I think we should implement policy measures not only in higher education but also in labor policy. Within education policy alone it’s very hard to improve the situation,” said Yamamoto.

While age limits exist for applicants seeking some bureaucratic positions (applicants for Defense Ministry jobs must be under 33, for instance, while those who wish to guard the House of Councilors office must be under 20), it is officially illegal for private companies to base hiring decisions on an applicant’s age. Nonetheless, many large and midsized companies do restrict hiring to new graduates.

Masamichi Atsumi, a career counselor at Wakayama University, explained the logic behind those policies.

“They want employees to come in like a blank sheet of paper, without having worked at another company. It’s like the old tradition of marrying a virgin bride. They want someone who will be loyal,” he said. Even though an older student may technically be a new graduate, he or she is a less appealing candidate.

The opposite is true in the U.S., said Dan Angel, president of Golden Gate University, a school in San Francisco, California, serving mainly adult learners.

“Employers are looking for someone who can help them do what they want to do. If you have experience and an education, that’s great. If you have just one or the other, you’re a lesser candidate,” he said.

The situation is starting to change in Japan as more companies adopt Western management practices. In professions that require a special license, such as law, teaching and nursing, age plays less of a role in hiring decisions and, even in the business world, firms are starting to hire experienced applicants who can set to work without prolonged, expensive training.

Yet for adults looking to start a white-collar career late in life, or even move up within the company where they are currently employed, there remains little incentive to return to school.

“The problem is very deep,” said Amano. “It’s not just an issue of universities asking how they can increase the number of adult learners. It’s connected to big problems within Japanese society and business.”

Until those problems are addressed, adult learners at Japan’s universities are likely to remain limited to the rare few, like Matsuzaki, whose passion for intellectual growth is strong enough to carry them past the many social and economic barriers blocking their way.