With schools well into their final term and the university academic year already winding down, it’s time to reflect on the most significant events in Japanese education this past year.
“Most significant” doesn’t mean the most discussed, but rather events most likely to have a lasting impact. For example, readers won’t find any mention below of the annual, but ultimately trivial, hand-wringing in response to the University of Tokyo’s placement in the World University Rankings. Instead, you’ll be introduced to some seemingly boring policy minutiae decided in certainly boring committee meetings because they’ll lead to change that can be seen, not just believed in.
ELEMENTARY TO HIGH SCHOOL
This year the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) announced the introduction of teaching a second language in Japanese elementary schools. No, not English — computer programming languages.
Believing the introduction of coding will help students’ thinking skills, MEXT bureaucrats decided to introduce computer programming classes to all public elementary schools by 2020.
In July, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications announced that 11 elementary, junior high and senior high schools would become models for the programming classes. The Chiba Prefecture city of Kashiwa went further, and will teach the programming language Scratch in all its elementary schools starting next year.
Programming classes represent one element in a wider shift to place more emphasis on information and communication technology in Japanese classrooms. The currently ongoing introduction of LAN Wi-Fi and electronic blackboards to every school is a precursor to the introduction of digital textbooks and tablets.
JET numbers taking off
MEXT declared in August that English would be an official subject in grades five and six starting in 2020. The statement also designated foreign language activity class as mandatory for grades three and four.
After the announcement, parents, students and especially teachers wondered who’d be responsible for the lessons. Signs point to the burden falling on untrained foreign assistants.
Money promised to municipalities by the internal affairs ministry will see more assistant language teachers (ALTs) from the government-run Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET) in Japanese schools. The government hopes to increase the number of JET ALTs from the current 4,952 to 6,400 by 2019. This would see a return to 2002 levels, when 6,273 taught in Japan.
Despite the rise in JETs, the vast majority of ALTs will remain those outsourced by dispatch companies that have won contracts with boards of education (BOEs). These dispatch companies may start consulting mining experts after their race to the bottom hit new lows in 2016.
In February, the Fukuoka General Union posted a YouTube video outlining the monthly budget of a Kitakyushu-based ALT whose full-time June-February contract left him with ¥511 a day for food. The ALT couldn’t afford to quit because he lived in accommodation provided by the company, and resigning early required paying a penalty of a month’s rent.
Then, at the beginning of the school year, 65 Interac ALTs in Sapporo found themselves unemployed when Nova beat out Interac for the contract to supply the city’s ALTs. Interac teachers who switched to Nova found themselves sacked again, on what was to be their first day, when Nova lost the contract for failing to supply the required number of ALTs.
“ALTs are the only teachers procured by tender,” says Chris Flynn of the Fukuoka General Union. “They’re also the only teachers outsourced.” BOEs tender out contracts for outsourced ALTs in the same way they buy chalk and chairs.
Outsourcing ALT hiring rarely saves BOEs money — unless you count the cost of aspirin for the headaches BOE bureaucrats fear they’ll suffer if forced to deal with foreigners directly.
Bullying, and the inability of schools to solve the problem, continued to be an issue. Two cases involving evacuees from Fukushima Prefecture’s March 2011 nuclear disaster emerged at the end of the year.
News of the first case broke in November after the Yokohama municipal BOE released the results of an 11-month probe. Japanese and international media reported that a boy from Fukushima began suffering bullying at the hands of his elementary school classmates immediately after moving to Yokohama in August 2011. The bullies taunted him with the label “germ.” Tormenting then escalated to physical assaults. The school and BOE failed to stop the bullying even after the boy’s parents complained. Police said that his classmates had extorted a total of ¥1.5 million from the child.
In December, journalists started covering a second case. The classmates of a fourth-grade Fukushima boy who had moved to Niigata also started calling their victim “germ”. The boy complained to his homeroom teacher, but rather than ending it, he joined in with the name-calling. The boy then stopped attending school.
A MEXT survey released in October found that reported cases of bullying at Japanese elementary, junior high and senior high schools reached a record high of 224,540 cases in the 2015 academic year. Elementary schools had the most incidents at 151,190, junior high schools documented 59,422, and high schools registered 12,654.
The same survey also found that the number of elementary school students who stopped attending classes for more than 30 days increased to a record 27,581.
Counterintuitively, this increased bullying and truancy could lead to larger class sizes. During budget discussions for the 2015 fiscal year, Ministry of Finance bureaucrats argued that the continued rise in bullying showed the ineffectiveness of MEXT’s 2011 reduction of first-grade class sizes to 35 pupils. By raising the maximum number of students per class back to 40, the Finance Ministry hoped to save ¥8.6 billion a year.
In releasing the survey results, MEXT claimed that the record number resulted from increased reporting rather than any rise in actual bullying. It also secured funding this year to hire 400 school counselors and social workers to address the problem. Time will tell if the Finance Ministry continues to fund solutions without seeing results.
The planning stage
Future budget battles with the Ministry of Finance appear inevitable after MEXT launched two massive planning projects in 2016. Pencils were sharpened at MEXT desks to revise the national curricula for elementary, junior high and high schools. In an Aug. 1 summary of discussions, MEXT announced that in 2020, English would become an official subject in grades five and six, and high school students would get new classes in geography, Japanese and modern history.
The revisions will also introduce a new teaching style to Japanese classrooms. Active learning, as it’s called, will encourage students to discuss their opinions and how to solve problems. The details of who will train all of Japan’s teachers in the new method will be worked out over the next four years.
The second project occupying MEXT is writing the Third Basic Plan for the Promotion of Education. This comprehensive five-year plan will cover 2018-2022. MEXT’s Central Council of Education began discussions in April. Creating the plan will take 18 months.
This unimaginatively named project might seem as exciting as wiping blackboards all day, but its implementation will touch on nearly every aspect of Japanese education — from the start of kindergarten to the end of university and the whole job-hunting season that comes with it.
D is for demographics — and disaster
The key issue in Japanese higher education again this year was demographics. The number of 18-year-olds has been dropping since 1991’s peak of over 2 million. Universities gained a brief respite after 2008 when the decline leveled off. But the descent will begin again in 2018, with the 18-year-old population projected to fall below 1 million in 2031.
Like a fireman spraying gasoline rather than water on a fire, MEXT’s decision to increase the number of universities from about 500 about 20 years ago to 779 today transformed what could have been a containable blaze into a campus-consuming conflagration. MEXT threw on more fuel in November, granting five universities permission to open in 2018.
Last April, 43 percent of Japan’s 604 private universities failed to meet their MEXT-set intake quotas. Schools in rural areas and smaller cities are struggling the most.
In response, this year MEXT introduced punitive measures to deal with universities, especially private schools, enrolling more students than their official admission capacity. Until 2015, private universities with over 8,000 students could enroll up to 1.2 times their official quota each year without any penalty. For example, a department with an intake quota of 100 students could accept up to 120 without incurring a penalty. But accepting more than 120 would have resulted in cuts to the university’s state subsidies. Universities with fewer than 8,000 students could accept up to 1.3 times their quota.
This year, MEXT cut the figure to 1.17 for large universities with over 8,000 students and 1.27 for medium-size universities with 4,000-8,000 students. Schools exceeding the stricter quota get their state subsidies slashed to zero. In 2018, the limits fall to 1.1 for large universities and 1.2 for medium-size schools. In 2019, MEXT will reduce subsidies to any university whose intake exceeds 1.0.
MEXT introduced the stricter rules to force more students into attending smaller universities located outside major cities. Small universities with under 4,000 students will be permitted to continue accepting up to 1.3 times their quota of students without penalty.
Cutting the number of incoming students back to official admission capacity is a serious financial blow to medium and large private universities. University administrators, hoping to avoid the need to bring out their red pens, sent a flurry of applications to MEXT seeking permission to increase quotas and start new departments.
Even with over 40 percent of universities unable to attract students of sufficient quantity or quality, MEXT wants to create even more. On May 30, MEXT’s Central Council for Education made a recommendation to permit the establishment of a brand new type of four-year vocational university. The council hopes the new institutions will train more specialists in information technology, agriculture and tourism.
Students attending these new vocational universities will be expected to spend 600 hours in practical courses such as internships. The plan also calls for teachers with at least five years of work experience to make up 40 percent of full-time faculty members.
Many of Japan’s existing two-year vocational and technical colleges enthusiastically support the idea. Those converting into four-year vocational universities will become newly eligible for state subsidies. MEXT announced preparations to amend the law so that vocational universities can open as early as April 2019.
Details of the plan remain unclear. MEXT hasn’t specified how many will open or where. According to an Aug. 23 press release from Sanpou, a career and education advising company, 65.1 percent of high school teachers it surveyed said they didn’t know enough about the proposal to decide whether they supported or opposed the change.
The end of employment?
In a court case whose outcome could change employment in the English conversation school (eikaiwa) industry, Kansai’s General Union filed a lawsuit against the Nova chain with the Nagoya District Court on Sept. 20. The union filed the suit on behalf of Nova teachers who signed a contract designating them as independent contractors.
Last year Nova began offering new hires a contract classifying them as independent contractors instead of company employees. Teachers signing it received slightly higher pay — ¥1,400 for 40 minutes — but gave up paid annual leave, worker’s accident compensation, as well as unemployment, health and pension insurance. Unlike typical independent contractors, these teachers follow the same company-issued instructions on class location, textbooks and dress codes as regular employees.
The General Union announced on their website: “We’re fighting for the right for people to be recognised as the employees that they actually are, instead of the ‘independent contractors’ that the company needs them to pretend to be in order to ignore their financial responsibilities.”
If the court finds in favor of Nova, expect to see more language schools follow their lead and try to reclassify teachers as independent contractors.