Japan may lose out in the international arena, especially in scientific and technological research, if no appropriate steps are taken to stem the decline in Japanese university students’ academic abilities, warns the new president of the prestigious University of Tokyo.

“The University of Tokyo is no exception when talking about the decline of students’ academic ability,” Takeshi Sasaki said in a recent interview with The Japan Times. “We are taking the problem very seriously because the foundation of academic research could crumble.”

In recent years, university teachers have pointed out that students’ academic skills have been slipping. This is partly because entrance exams have become easier to pass as universities try to keep enrollments up while the number of high school graduates drops amid the falling birthrate.

Some universities are even obliged to offer high school-level classes to students so they can catch up.

In addition, teachers are worried about the effect of the Education Ministry’s new mandatory curriculum plan, in which the volume of knowledge that students are required to retain will be cut by about 30 percent from next April at elementary schools and junior high schools.

Although the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry says it cannot clarify the actual drift of students’ academic performance without conducting a nationwide survey, Sasaki said Japan should not ignore the situation.

He did not specify in what way academic abilities of University of Tokyo students have declined, but he stressed that the problem has outraged staff.

“Faculty members in natural science are especially worried about the problem, saying that Japan will not be able to compete internationally if the current situation is left alone.”

The university is considering ways of developing the academic abilities of high school students. One idea is to hold exchanges between faculty members and high school students to stimulate the latter’s academic interest. For example, Todai lecturers could visit high schools to give special classes.

The University of Tokyo, popularly called Todai, has long enjoyed the status as a top institution that produces national leaders not only in academia, but also in the government and business sectors.

As much as 70 percent of the elite “career track” bureaucrats hired this year by the Finance Ministry were Todai graduates.

Despite this, Sasaki, a graduate of the class of 1965, said the title “Todai graduate” has been losing its impact in society in recent times.

“Which university you graduated from has become less important than your actual ability these days,” especially in the business world, and it is also the case with Todai, he said.

In this sense, Sasaki wants students with wider interests and reasons for studying at the institution, rather than people who merely want “Todai” stamped on their resumes.

“We should have students of wider age groups at Todai, which is currently dominated by those aged between 18 and 22,” he said, stressing his intention to focus more on graduate studies.

Sasaki, who is an outspoken political scientist and former dean of the university’s law department, said that change is sweeping organizations and systems throughout Japanese society.

And of course, the new government led by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi symbolizes this.

“Because of Koizumi’s success, (factional politics) in the Liberal Democratic Party is about to be overturned. But I cannot say if it will be overturned completely before seeing how Koizumi will handle his administration.”

The process with which power is built changed within the party, Sasaki said. “But the process in which power is exercised is another story.”

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