Upcoming changes to Japanese university admissions have students, parents and teachers raising their hands to ask questions. May and June saw the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) announce several details of its 2020 university admission reforms.

Most attention has focused on changes to the National Center Test for University Admissions. Last year 560,672 high school students registered for the exam. In 2020 it will be renamed the Daigaku Nyugaku Kyotsu Test (no official English title is yet available, so let’s translate it as the University Entrance Common Test) and test-takers will need to write 80-to-120-character answers for the Japanese and mathematics sections. A private company will perform marking duties.

By assessing what they call the powers of thinking, judgment and expression, MEXT hopes their reformed exam will encourage changes to high school teaching methods.

But MEXT backtracked on its proposal to eliminate the Center Test’s English section entirely, bending to pressure exerted by the Japan Association of National Universities, the Japan Association of Private Universities and Colleges, and the National Association of Upper Secondary School Principals, which all begged MEXT to delay the plan.

From 2020 to 2023, universities can choose to admit applicants based on either the new Common Test’s English section or private-sector English tests that assess speaking, writing, listening and reading — or both. Students will be able to take private English tests twice between April and December during their final year of high school. Testing companies will send candidate results to the National Center for University Entrance Examinations, which will then forward the test scores to universities on behalf of students.

Yet it remains unclear which private tests MEXT will endorse. Proposals and action plans stretching back to 2011 named the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) as the preferred exam, but MEXT’s May 16 proposal listed 10 possible tests, and numerous companies are eager to win ministry approval.

High school students living in rural areas will be at a disadvantage if universities begin requiring TOEFL scores. The internet-based TOEFL is currently offered at only 90 sites in Japan equipped with the required computer labs. In comparison, the Center Test is given in about 700 locations. With only two TOEFL testing sites in Shikoku and nothing outside of Sapporo in Hokkaido or Naha in Okinawa, students living outside major cities will face an increased burden in terms of travel time and costs. Candidates will also have to pay $235 (around $27,000) for the TOEFL in addition to the Center Test’s ¥18,000 fee.

Robert Aspinall, a professor at Doshisha University’s Center for Global Education and author of “International Education Policy in Japan in an Age of Globalisation and Risk,” supports the idea of testing speaking.

“Putting speaking on the university entrant tests may be the best thing that has ever happened to English teaching in Japan,” he says, as it would force teachers and cram schools to teach speaking. However, he’s less supportive of using the TOEFL. “There’s no way they can use the TOEFL because it’s much too difficult for Japanese high school students,” he says.

Private universities

Despite the media’s focus on Center Test changes, MEXT’s new rules for private university entrance exams will have a greater impact on a larger number of students. Nearly 480,000 students enter private universities annually.

For them, Japan’s exam-hell fires don’t burn as hot as in the past. According to 2015 MEXT data, just 49 percent of the students entering private universities gained admission through written entrance exams. With 43 percent of private universities unable to fulfill their intake quotas, they’ve introduced shortcuts into Japan’s groves of academe.

Just over 40 percent of students entered through “recommendation exams” — not in fact exams at all, but admission based on teacher recommendations, particularly from schools that universities have agreed to accept a set number of students from — and 10 percent entered through Admission Office (AO) entrance exams, which for some schools essentially means filling out the required forms.

MEXT proposed dropping the term “entrance exam” and introducing new rules for 2020 that will mean high school students need to do more and wait longer for acceptance into private universities. Recommendation exams will be called School Recommendation-Type Selection and the AO exams will be renamed Comprehensive Selection. MEXT will also introduce stronger rules requiring universities using these selection systems to base acceptance on short essays, presentations and interviews. MEXT also wants universities to consider factors like volunteer work and overseas study when admitting applicants.

Universities won’t be able to announce acceptance through the Comprehensive and School Recommendation selection processes until November and December, respectively. MEXT pushed these dates back a month, based on the thinking that too many high school students stop studying after receiving early university acceptance. MEXT will also require universities to implement a pre-university education program for students accepted through these two selection types, because too many high school graduates aren’t sufficiently prepared for post-secondary study.

Under the new rules, private universities can offer General Selection paper tests starting Jan. 25 rather than the current Feb. 1. MEXT also called on universities to introduce written answers to their paper tests and to test all four English skills by 2020. Similar requests go back five years, so university administrators remain uncertain if MEXT really means it this time.

Learning Curve covers issues related to education in Japan.

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