Laid-back attitude needs work

I beg to differ with the headline for Takamitsu Sawa’s article, asserting that top students are shunning Japan. Talented students are not shunning Japan, per se — just the laid-back, everyone-gets-a-degree, pay-your-tuition approach to higher education in Japan.

Let’s be honest, most undergraduate universities in Japan lack the academic rigor found at four-year universities in America or the United Kingdom, especially in the humanities. Students there who fail to meet such standards are flunked. Neither family wealth nor social connections will guarantee a student that prized degree.

There’s a reason it’s called the “academic grind” in America; you must work hard. A student must pass numerous exams, write term papers that meet or surpass the professor’s expectations, and participate in classroom discussions to earn a university degree. It’s a sink or swim proposition. The attrition rate at some American universities is as high as 30 percent. And there’s no refunds if a student does poorly. State universities are subsidized by their respective state governments and rarely worry about going bankrupt. Most meet enrollment quotas each fall without difficulty.

Regardless of whether a student is accepted at Harvard University or Iowa State University, academic excellence can be found at both. Harvard has more “prestige,” but Iowa State can offer nearly the same quality of education without the heart-stopping costs. A greater percentage of Harvard students will complete their four-year degree simply because they met tougher admissions standards to enter the school, and most are much more financially secure than the Midwestern kids attending Iowa State.

Many lower-income families in America are now debating the value of a college degree, although I’ve always stood by the old adage “If you think an education is expensive, try ignorance.”

According to Sawa, 45.8 percent of private four-year universities in Japan were unable to fill annual enrollment quotas without admitting foreign students. This would suggest that such schools are managed more like an airline or a hotel than an academic institution. The universities try to avoid bankruptcy by lowering admission standards and recruiting less-qualified, less-motivated students from overseas, but ultimately the academic standards at such schools suffer. Poorer academic standards mean fewer talented students will apply to enroll at such schools, and the better qualified educators will indeed shun these places.

Unfortunately this is becoming more common among third- and fourth-tier universities in America. Chalk it up to the corporate takeover of academia and the desire to keep the customer happy above all else. Professors are encouraged to be “more entertaining.” Cultural illiteracy is the new normal. I’m not sure if the top foreign students seeking a degree in the humanities are applying for admission to America’s less prestigious universities today.

Even at Ivy League schools there’s an outlook among professors and students that vocational training is the most pragmatic approach to education. The college counselor encourages first-year students to keep their focus on the job market four years down the road. Some students pride themselves on completing their degree without ever setting foot in the campus library.

Didn’t George W. Bush boast that during his Yale undergraduate daze he read only one book? I wonder if that book is on special exhibit at the new G.W. Bush presidential library in Houston.

robert mckinney
otaru, hokkaido

The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.