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Todai plan to shift school year could be catalyst for wider Japanese reforms

by Jochen Legewie

Special To The Japan Times

The University of Tokyo, locally known as Todai, has announced a draft plan to shift the start of its academic year from spring to autumn and called on 11 other major universities to join it. Public discussion of the proposal has been immense since the announcement in mid-January, and for good reason.

The keyword is internationalization. Todai, worried about Japan’s role on the global stage, argues that fall enrollment would help foreigner students attend Japanese schools and better allow Japanese students and researchers to study abroad. On a global level, 70 percent of countries start their academic year in autumn. Only seven out of 215 kick off in April as Japan does.

The spring start tradition is one — but hardly the only — important reason why foreign enrollment in Japanese universities remains meager. Last May, there were only 138,000 foreign students in Japan, compared with 720,000 in the United States. In 2009, foreign students in Japan accounted for 3.6 percent of all students studying away from home, down 1 point from 2005, according to the OECD.

The U.K. magazine Times Higher Education ranks universities by teaching quality, research, citations, industry income and international outlook. From 2010 to 2011, Todai slipped from 26th to 30th place, with no other Top 30 school ranked lower in international outlook. Although it was still No. 1 in Asia, Todai faces another slip down the rankings because only 1.9 percent of its undergraduates come from abroad, and even less — 0.4 percent — go overseas.

In addition, a Todai panel studying the issue argues that a 6-month gap term between exams in spring and the start of university in autumn will provide students with invaluable time to grow. The panel foresees “high-impact experiences that transform their way of studying” by gaining experience abroad or participating in volunteer or other nonstandard activities.

If realized, this move will effect a fundamental shift in Japanese academia and have far-reaching repercussions for business and society overall. And the chances of it happening are good. Many other universities reacted positively to the proposal, and both big business and government quickly embraced the idea.

Shoi Utsuda, chairman of the Japan Foreign Trade Council, praised the decision “from the viewpoint of nurturing globally minded human resources.” Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda even positioned fall enrollment as a national strategic issue to be actively discussed.

The whole discussion of and overly positive response to the Todai proposal, however, must be taken with a grain of salt. If all universities followed suit, we would see another manifestation of something Japan has long been criticized for: the so-called convoy system, in which almost all entities in a sector move as one.

A decision to conform to international norms, i.e. autumn enrollment, thus comes with some irony because it effectively reflects a convoy-style response. Still, it represents a major step toward reform and internationalization with lots of promise — and thus must be praised.

More important, however, is the potential for making the Japanese hiring and labor system — and eventually Japanese society itself — fundamentally more flexible. In an ideal world, only half of Japan’s universities would introduce autumn enrollment, prompting a shift in standard hiring practice to twice per year instead of April 1.

Even better, specific hiring dates for graduates might disappear completely in the long run, as it has in much of Europe, and be replaced by spontaneous hiring more based on individual talent and actual availability.

In Germany and many other countries, students can enroll in either spring or fall without any problem. Most companies’ hiring schemes are not in synch with university schedules but are more flexibly built around the ever-changing needs and availability of each candidate.

One major task for Japan’s universities is to foster and develop national leaders — not only in the corporate and public sector, but also in the sciences and other fields. Yasuchika Hasegawa, chairman of the Japan Association of Corporate Executives (Keizai Doyukai), has even proposed the introduction of a full-fledged elite education in a recent interview with the daily Yomiuri Shinbun.

Hasegawa highly values the prewar education system, where students competed in a friendly way in middle school in both academic and nonacademic settings. Even individual debating skills were promoted, offering an interesting parallel to the oft-praised debate clubs in the United States.

Interestingly, Japanese universities used a fall enrollment system from the Meiji Era until the middle of the Taisho Era, which made it easier to bring in teachers from Europe and the United States. In 1921, however, enrollment was shifted to spring to comply with the fiscal year.

But back to 2012. Let us hope the Todai proposal will turn out to be an important catalyst for change in Japan. If not all universities follow Todai’s lead, the chances of fundamental change are even better. Just last week, my own alma mater, Hitotsubashi University, announced an individual plan that differs widely from Todai’s.

During an introductory term from April through July, Hitotsubashi will take responsibility for providing basic education on such subjects as foreign languages, history, philosophy and science. It will also encourage students interested in studying abroad to do so before their real classes start in fall. Hitotsubashi also allows some students to finish in seven semesters, provided they meet special conditions.

More original ideas like these should emerge. Flexible and intelligent solutions from individual universities will be important in reviving Japanese academia and society. Another six-month convoy move simply won’t be enough.

Jochen Legewie is president of German communications consultancy CNC Japan K.K. (See his blog: www.cncblogs.jp)