Course credits and degrees provided by overseas Internet universities should be recognized in the same manner as academic qualifications obtained abroad, says a recommendation announced Wednesday by an advisory panel to the education minister.

The recommendation was issued by a panel of the University Council, which is looking into the future of universities in an era of globalization.

The study is in response to the ongoing information and technology revolution. In drawing up the recommendation, the body explored ways by which academic qualifications could be recognized, as education becomes increasingly diversified and university programs expand beyond national borders.

The recommendation is planned to be incorporated into an outline to be discussed by experts, which will then be submitted as a formal proposal before the end of the year.

The panel’s finding comes as a growing number of universities in Western countries have introduced Internet-based, degree-granting programs. In addition, more and more students in Japan are enrolling in those programs.

The virtual universities conduct courses primarily over the Internet and other forms of electronic communication. Students electronically receive learning materials and can use e-mail, fax or other means to ask their instructors questions and submit reports and papers.

One advantage of the arrangement is that it provides quick exchanges of opinions between students and instructors.

However, Japan’s current educational system provides no measures to accommodate virtual universities. Educational institutions in Japan do not recognize Internet-based courses and students who graduate from virtual academic programs will find their qualifications useless when applying to a Japanese graduate school.

The panel, however, wants to change that. The major considerations behind its proposal were the exchanges between students and instructors that Net universities allow, the convenience of not having to commute and the rapidly growing number of students expected to enroll in such courses in coming years.

The recommendation also calls for an inquiry into recognizing programs entirely made up of courses that are conducted electronically. Under current guidelines, students of correspondence universities are required to obtain at least 20 credits from courses conducted in classrooms. The arrangement tends to place a large burden on working students.

“Japan is being left behind” in Internet-based higher education, says Keizo Nagaoka, a senior researcher at the ministry’s National Institute of Multimedia Education.

“Right now, a movement is growing, even in Asian countries like Singapore and Thailand, to recognize the qualifications of graduates of virtual universities in the U.S. and Europe,” he says.

Even so, Internet education will be best-suited to mature students who have already accumulated a fair degree of working experience, he says, because “There is a strong tendency for (universities) to give a one-sided presentation of specialist knowledge.”

“There would be a lot of problems if they were used in the education of the younger generation.” Nagaoka said. “Many of these universities teach nothing but pragmatic courses like business, and they are not well suited to such fields as culture.”