Reform means the world for Todai

Fall enrollment part of wider drive to lure foreign students, diversify

by Mizuho Aoki

Staff Writer

When Japan’s leading university announced in January that it intends to shift undergraduate enrollment from spring to autumn in line with colleges worldwide, the plan created waves far beyond the academic world.

The University of Tokyo’s move would have a far broader and deeper effect on Japanese society and force authorities to amend long-established practices, notably the season when companies recruit graduates and the timing of various national examinations, such as those medical students take in February to qualify for a medical license.

But the response from government and the business world has so far been favorable, with most officials welcoming the university’s efforts to internationalize its operations. The proposed shift comes at a time when fostering a broader global perspective among the nation’s youth is increasingly viewed as a priority.

Following the university’s announcement, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura instructed administrative vice ministers to ensure the issue is discussed in every ministry, demonstrating the government’s support for the plan.

Keidanren, the nation’s leading business lobby, also plans to discuss how companies should adjust their recruitment schedules, as well as ways to support high school graduates during the six-month break, or “gap term,” that would be created between their graduation and the time they start university. At present, students enroll around two weeks after finishing high school.

The University of Tokyo, commonly known as Todai, plans to introduce the change within five years.

The move is intended to boost the university’s global competitiveness against its international rivals and lure more outstanding foreign students, and also to develop a more global outlook among its Japanese student body.

Todai has also set a target of raising the number of overseas students to at least 12 percent of its total student body by 2020.

But some education experts say the enrollment shift alone will not be enough to realize these goals, arguing that Todai must carry out drastic internal reforms if it truly wants to become a more attractive option for overseas students and to change Japanese students’ thinking.

“It’s not like everything will be fixed if (Todai) shifts to autumn enrollment,” Mineo Nakajima, president of Akita International University, told The Japan Times in a recent interview.

“The important things are its curriculum and factors such as credit transfers (with overseas academic institutions). . . . It also needs to radically change the current mindset of its faculty and employees,” he said.

Nakajima suggested that Todai’s leaders might benefit from taking a close look at Akita International University, which has made study abroad mandatory for all its students and enrolls new recruits in both spring and autumn.

His other proposals for Todai include adopting the international codes U.S. colleges use for each curriculum to indicate the subject and level of every class, keeping libraries open 24 hours a day so that students have a place to study at all times, and conducting classes entirely in English.

“In the age we live in, I think the key point is whether (a university) can disseminate information in English — the de facto international language,” Nakajima said.

“And considering how many faculty members are able to communicate in English, I believe they have to thoroughly change the (current) way of Japanese professors teaching Japanese students in Japanese,” he said. “That’s the first step to changing a faculty’s way of thinking.”

While Todai is considered the nation’s top and most prestigious academic institution, its efforts to internationalize its campuses and student body have lagged behind the world’s leading universities.

According to Todai’s own data, only 1.9 percent of its undergraduate students were non-Japanese as of last May. At Harvard University the proportion stood at 10 percent in 2009, while 6 percent of undergraduates at Seoul University came from outside South Korea in 2010.

The same can be said of Todai’s faculty, whose non-Japanese members accounted for only 2.3 percent of the total — just 88 teachers — as of May 2011.

By comparison, 20 percent of Oxford University’s faculty were non-British and 14 percent of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s faculty were overseas nationals as long ago as 2006, according to a report by the Todai panel that recommended autumn enrollment.

To start catching up with leading overseas universities, Todai will kick off a new undergraduate course this autumn — titled “Program in English at Komaba (the undergraduate campus)” — and offering students the opportunity to take all classes in English.

But the course can only accommodate a few students, effectively diluting any real impact it might have on the Komaba campus, said Yuki Honda, a professor of education at Todai.

“The course has only a few dozen (places) for the 3,000 students in the same year,” Honda said. “I really wish more foreign students from a wider variety of countries would come and make an impression (among Japanese students). . . . That would make (the academic environment) far more interesting.”

Todai’s planned reforms are not only being driven by internal panels and faculty members.

Japan’s aging society and declining birthrate are shrinking the pool of potential new students, forcing universities to rethink the way they have traditionally done things and implement radical changes, Todai’s Honda said.

In fiscal 2011, 39 percent of 572 private universities failed to meet their minimum enrollment quotas, according to a survey by the Promotion and Mutual Aid Corporation for Private Schools of Japan. Japan has 596 private universities in total.

But the University of Tokyo has yet to experience any such enrollment problems, thanks to its revered status.

“Although (Todai) is not ranked that high among universities worldwide, it continues to retain its high status and prestige in this ‘Galapagos country,’ ” Honda said, referring to Japanese students’ perception of the school.

“Todai is able to survive even though it is not very capable of sensing or perceiving changes in society, the economy and the international environment,” she said.

But while some on Todai’s faculty may not feel a sense of crisis now, such complacency may be jeopardizing the university’s long-term future, Honda said.

Regarding the gap between terms until autumn enrollment, some experts have expressed concern that it may increase the financial burden on students.

Todai hopes high school graduates will use the extra free time to engage in activities that benefit society, such as volunteering for worthy causes, or take on new challenges to broaden their views, such as corporate internships.

It remains unclear, however, whether the university plans to create such programs or internships at companies, or would provide any financial assistance to those participating in them.

It is also quite probable that the new six-month break will highly confuse many students as it will effectively strip them of any official status and leave them in limbo, Ibaraki University President Yukio Ikeda said Jan. 30.

To discuss the specific details of shifting the time of enrollment, Todai intends to set up two consultative bodies in April — one comprising representatives from 11 leading universities, including Tokyo’s Keio University, and Kyoto University, and the other involving members of business groups such as Keidanren.

In January, Todai President Junich Hamada said it will be crucial for Japan’s leading universities to cooperate in order to realize the change, given the wider changes to society autumn enrollment would necessitate.

Following Hamada’s statement, more than 40 percent of 81 national universities announced they plan to start discussions on whether to start autumn enrollment, a recent Kyodo News poll found. In addition, 10 out of 12 private universities surveyed said they also intend to hold talks on the proposed change.

“I believe there are many problems in Japanese society, such as a narrow sense of values, a rigid way of thinking and intolerance. Internationalizing (universities) is desirable to address these issues and help to change society,” Todai’s Honda said.