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Todai calls for change, but will others follow?

by Philip Brasor

Spring approaches, and the thoughts of the media, which like nothing better than the warm comfort of a predictable news cycle, turn to education. Students are wrapping up the scholastic year and some are taking tests that will determine their lives. Last year, reporters got a bonus; That story about the young man who, while taking the entrance exam for Kyoto University, solicited answers via his cellphone from social-network sites. It was the kind of bombshell whose repercussions would have continued reverberating well into the new school year had that earthquake not been such a distraction.

This season’s education story is the University of Tokyo’s plan to change the start of the academic year from spring to fall in order to align with other countries and become more “internationally competitive.” Known locally as Todai, Japan’s most prestigious institute of higher learning has been talking about it for some years, and the university’s president, Junichi Hamada, made it official at a press conference on Jan. 20. The stated aim for the change, which the university hopes to implement in five years, is to enroll more foreign students and send more of its own Japanese charges overseas.

The reaction was positive. Media, government and business leaders say it’s a good idea, but one prominent magazine is not so sure. Aera implied in a feature that many other universities, while not necessarily rejecting the fall start plan, resent what they see as presumptuousness on Todai’s part. The president calls a press conference and says, “We’re going to start in the fall,” and suddenly everyone assumes the entire Japanese education system will fall in line. Of course, Hamada didn’t say that, but that’s the way his announcement was interpreted. On the Asahi Shimbun opinion site Web Ronza, Tomoyoshi Ito of Chiba University expressed his dissatisfaction by saying, “Why do all other schools have to do the same thing?”

The reason is because the University of Tokyo sits at the top of the country’s educational pyramid. It’s the hardest school to get into, so it follows that it must be the best. Whether or not it actually is the best depends on your criteria, but in the scheme of things quality means less than perception, because the university experience has more to do with certification than education. People believe that just getting into Todai guarantees a bright future. What the successful applicant accomplishes there is secondary.

Aera suggests that the University of Tokyo actively cultivates this image, or, at least, encourages its dissemination. In its coverage of the press conference, the magazine fixates on Hamada’s response to what sounds like a trivial question. One reporter brought up the possibility that a new school year would play havoc with the draft systems of professional sports teams, which work on a springtime graduation schedule. Hamada laughed and said, “I wasn’t aware of that problem.” Actually, he didn’t care, because Todai is notoriously weak when it comes to athletics, and Aera couldn’t help getting in a dig, saying that “fostering healthy minds and bodies” is obviously a “joke” to Hamada.

The weekly surveyed 75 universities to find out if they plan to follow Todai’s lead. Six said they already allow students to start in the fall, 42 responded that they will “watch the situation before making a decision” and 24 indicated they didn’t know what to do. Only three schools explicitly said they would not even consider changing their school years, but Aera elicited comments indicating that quite a few universities don’t appreciate the notion that it’s something they have to do.

A representative of Kinki University complained that such a change would “adversely affect students who take tests and their parents.” Logic says that changing the entrance-exam period to any time of the year except late winter would probably be an improvement. Making students travel to designated hubs to take the National Center Test for University Admissions when snow is falling only benefits the media, which has a field day reporting the tribulations of students getting to testing venues on time. In truth, Todai says it has no intention of changing the test-taking season, and Aera conjectures it’s because the school doesn’t want to risk the possibility of students who have already been accepted at other schools sitting for Todai entrance exams.

As for the “gap period” that will materialize between the time students take exams in the winter and the time they start classes in the fall, Todai says it will provide a good chance for them to experience the world or, at least, life by traveling abroad or engaging in volunteer work or taking a business internship.

Some universities also are afraid that the change may affect recruitment activities. As already mentioned, university students think in terms of jobs, but except for vocational schools higher educational institutions are not supposed to stress recruitment, so most don’t say anything. Kochi University was honest, telling Aera that changing graduation to summer would mean nothing unless companies changed their recruitment seasons accordingly. There’s also a sentimentally grounded objection. In his opinion piece Ito said that starting the new school year in spring is “appropriate for Japan” because it’s cherry blossom season.

All these concerns mean less to Todai because Todai calls the shots. But while it is Japan’s top school, in the larger world it’s not treated with the same level of respect; or, at least, not as much respect as it believes it deserves. Internationalization demands that it make more of an effort to reach out, and while changing the school term is one way of doing that, it doesn’t get at the school’s root issues. Before extending its reach into the world it needs to come up to speed with the 21st century. The school has 1,282 professors, and only 58 are women.