Teachers take the strain of a system in flux


Hiroshi Sato, 37, is an assistant professor of political science at a private university in Tokyo that, while not among the nation’s top-ranked seats of learning, nonetheless enjoys a high status and popularity.

Sato’s career there spans almost 10 years, including two years’ research leave at a U.S. university. Now, in addition to research, each week he has to teach five 90-minute politics classes, which — for an enthusiastic young teacher full of ideas and in the prime of his academic career — may seem a rather agreeable schedule.

The fact is, though, Sato must juggle many other tasks in addition to his teaching schedule. Foremost among these is his duty to prepare, conduct and assess entrance applications, examinations and interviews.

Although similar duties are a normal part of any professor’s workload, for Sato and his colleagues that load just goes on getting heavier as the university continues to introduce new and different entrance exams in a bid to attract more students from the nation’s continually shrinking pool of applicants.

At Sato’s college, for instance, which has about 16,000 students working toward their degrees, there were about 100,000 applicants for the 4,000 freshmen places 10 years ago. Now, there are around 30,000.

So, with such intense competition for students, Sato’s university — like many others — has supplemented its general entrance exams held in winter with others that start in late summer. These include interview-only tests aimed at attracting the brightest students recommended by high schools, and essay-and-interview entrance procedures for those recommended for their special abilities in, for example, sports.

“I am often snowed under conducting tests and interviews and selecting students,” Sato says. “And sometimes I wonder if the entrance exams are still a true benchmark.”

But all that’s not the end of his headaches for, like many university teachers, Sato is also worried that students’ academic abilities are declining. This is thought to be because, as the number of applicants falls, the average test scores are dropping, making it easier for students to pass with lower scores.

“Long-standing professors say students’ academic abilities have clearly slipped recently,” Sato says. “Actually, I notice many of my students can’t write and express themselves logically in Japanese, or even use kanji correctly.

“What is more, they rarely read a newspaper — despite the fact they are majoring in a social science.”

Asked what’s definitely needed at his university, Sato replies: “An atmosphere that encourages students to hang out on the campus.

“Maybe this is a problem we share with other colleges in central Tokyo,” he concedes. “Many students take up to several hours to get here, so after classes they just head home instead of hanging around the university and experiencing a richer all-round university life.

“If I ever set up my own college,” Sato says, smiling, “I will definitely provide it with dormitories, too.”