More crucial than English

by Takamitsu Sawa

On Nov. 21, 2011, the Government Revitalization Unit (GRU) took up the issue of reform of Japan’s university system. Five themes were presented by GRU members:

(1) Is the quality of Japan’s university education deteriorating by global standards even as total revenues and expenditures for Japanese universities increase?

(2) Are the number of universities and that of university teachers and students on the rise despite a continuing fall in the number of children nationwide?

(3) How should the nation cope with the deterioration of students’ scholastic abilities and a rise in the number of debt-ridden universities when there are insufficient numbers of students to fill quotas?

(4) Do universities have clear visions for educating students with the future in mind?

(5) Is a gap widening between what is taught at universities and what is learned in the real world, and are universities thus failing to meet the needs of society?

On the first theme on the deterioration of the quality of education in Japan, officials representing the education ministry admitted that Japanese universities do not rank high in the World University Rankings of the Times Higher Education, as evidenced by the fact that the University of Tokyo ranked 30th and that only five Japanese institutions ranked within the top 200. They also said that the growth rate of university budgets in Japan since 2001 has been lower compared with the United States, Europe, China and South Korea and that the number of students per professor in Japan is much higher than in other countries.

Yet they claimed that the quality of research at Japanese universities is at least on a par with global standards as proven by the fact that in six fields of natural sciences, one or two Japanese universities rank within the world’s top 10 with respect to the number of scientific papers quoted. They argued that if the quality of Japanese universities is below global standards, it should be attributed to insufficient funds provided by the government sector.

My rebuttal to these ministry officials is that it is more appropriate to say that “only in six fields of natural sciences” do one or two Japanese universities rank within the world’s top 10. Even if sufficient funds have been provided by the government sector, there is no guarantee that an increased budget would elevate the quality of research projects. In my view, the basic problem lies in the way research funds have been distributed under the “selection and concentration” formula.

According to a certain prominent professor in natural sciences, about ¥50 million per year is enough to carry out a single research project. He goes on to say that assuming the total research budget for any given year is ¥1 billion, it is more desirable to allocate ¥50 million each to 20 projects than to allocate ¥200 million each to five projects. This is because, according to the professor, it is highly doubtful that a group of aged professors emeriti serving as project examiners would be able to pass correct judgment on the prospect of a cutting-edge project.

One of the participants in the Nov. 21 GRU meeting expressed the view that the education standards at Japanese universities cannot be compared favorably with those of Europe and North America. There is no denying that the quality of teachers in Japanese universities has deteriorated in recent years. One of the reasons is the spreading use of PowerPoint presentations in classrooms. The use of this device eliminates the need for teachers to be able to explain things. Students no longer have to take notes. And if students do not take notes, they retain little of what they’ve learned.

To the second and third themes, the education ministry officials responded by stating that most of the increases in numbers of university students occurred in the courses of nursing and nursery education, for which there are growing social needs, and that the government is seeking to provide greater opportunity for higher education to an increasing number of young men and women who are eager and able to study at universities.

As for private universities suffering financial troubles and failing to fill their enrollment quotas, they said the government will provide more support to private universities pursuing higher-quality education while calling on others with management and budgetary problems to take appropriate steps for rectification.

My rebuttal to these officials is that all 10 members of the GRU agreed that both the number and size of universities must be scaled down to more appropriate levels. The most basic problem lies in the lack of students’ eagerness and ability to study. When a university appears to fail to attract a sufficient number of students, it tends to admit all applicants and, if necessary, enroll additional applicants from China.

A large number of students majoring in the liberal arts do not possess sufficient skills to read, write and express themselves while many science majors cannot keep up with their math classes.

The percentage of high school graduates advancing to colleges and universities is 58 percent of the total, which ranks Japan 34th in the world and among the lowest of the industrially advanced nations. The figure almost leveled off in the past decade. All these seem to contradict the assertion by the education ministry that an increasing number of young men and women are eager to pursue higher education.

With regard to the fourth theme, the ministry officials said that the government has started supporting “globalization” of Japanese universities by inviting students from all corners of the world to study in this country. In close collaboration with business and industrial organizations, they said, efforts are being made to educate youths at graduate schools so that they will become capable of exerting leadership in private, public and international sectors in a global environment, refraining from concentrating solely on their narrow fields of specialty. Emphasis is also being placed on working jointly with local enterprises and communities, they said.

My views are, however, that the primary raison d’etre of graduate schools in Japan is to train researchers. In the natural science curricula, students at these institutes have had no choice but to concentrate on their narrow fields of specialty, because each of them is assigned to a “research room” headed by a professor. If graduate schools are to train students to become global leaders with broad knowledge, they will have to be entirely changed in nature from conventional graduate schools.

On the fifth theme, the education ministry officials asserted that the government has launched a “round table” of leaders in academia and industry to further promote cooperative relations between the two sectors. National universities, they said, are appointing businessmen as members of their management consultative bodies or as directors to introduce corporate managerial skills, and are taking strategic measures to develop human resources equipped with global perspectives, they said.

I am very dissatisfied with the government’s education policies that today are still based on what I regard as a notion dating back to the years of high economic growth — that the primary significance of universities is to turn out human resources that are useful to business and industry. The concept that universities are “manservants” of business and industry would be utterly incomprehensible at least in the European countries.

In Europe, universities are expected by society in general, and by business and industry in particular, to provide intellectual human resources.

As long as university graduates have acquired basic scholastic ability, they can easily develop occupational skills through on-the-job training after being employed by either a company or a government organization. No first-class executives would ever hope that university students work toward acquiring practical vocational expertise at universities by sacrificing their intellectual capabilities.

Universities must never fall into the position of becoming menservants of business and industry. Furthermore, for a person aspiring to become a global player, being well versed in history, literature, philosophy and other humanities-related knowledge is a far more important prerequisite than being proficient in English.

Takamitsu Sawa is president of Shiga University, Japan.