Educators push to get academic levels back up as universities lower bar to survive

Student count, knowledge sliding


Staff Writer

Education experts have for years been lamenting the academic decline of young Japanese.

Teachers have complained that an increasing number of college students lack even the basics that should have been driven home in junior high school. Students’ math and science skills have markedly worsened, and many struggle to deal with fractions and decimal point calculations.

The following will attempt to address why this is happening and what direction university education will take:

When did the decline in academic skills gain attention?

Teachers began noticing the decline in university students’ capabilities in the mid-1990s.

Since then, the media have frequently looked at the problem and teachers have written books, including “University Students Who Cannot Solve Fraction Problems,” published in 1999.

Kotaro Takahashi, an official at the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry, said that while academic skills are declining overall, a greater deterioration appears to be surfacing in universities of medium to low academic focus.

One recent case stands out. Astronomy professor Mitsumi Fujishita of Tokai University’s industrial engineering department gave his freshmen and sophomores a quiz on the basics in April and May 2011. A quarter of the 667 tested incorrectly answered the question “to which direction does the sun set?”

Three quarters of them said the west, 22 percent said the east, and the rest answered south or north.

To the question: “Which of the following — the sun, the moon or Mars — orbits the Earth?,” only 54 percent correctly said the moon.

What is behind the apparent, or at least statistical, academic decline of university students?

The decline is not because Japanese are studying less, but because universities — amid the falling birthrate and greater competition to keep enrollment up- are increasingly accepting youths whose academic levels would have been too low to pass entrance exams a few decades ago, experts said.

For example, the population of 18-year-olds plunged to 1.2 million this year from 2 million in 1991, but the number of freshmen enrolled stayed at a constant 500,000 to 600,000 for each year in the 20-year period, Takahashi, the education official, said.

This means there has been a drop in the percentage of high-level university students, but not necessarily a drop in the percentage of high-level youths.

To ensure enrollment, and thus profit, stay up despite the demographic decline, some universities have chosen to accept high school students without requiring them to take entrance exams, or give them tests that cover fewer subjects. In this manner, colleges have opened the door to high school students of lower academic ability.

Those exempted from the exams get in via the AO (admission office) track, in which universities screen new students with interviews and assess their high school achievements. Universities originally used the AO track to recruit people with unique skills, but now it is just a gimmick used by low-level universities to attract students.

A change in national education policy may also have abetted the academic slide.

The ministry regulated college enrollment until the late 1980s, when it began shifting authority on management decisions to universities in the early 1990s, allowing schools to maintain their enrollment numbers despite the decline in 18-year-olds, Takahashi said.

Can the academic decline also be attributed to the “yutori kyoiku” (relaxed education) policy?

Possibly, but not to the extent the decline in young people has created. The relaxed education policy was introduced in the 1990s for elementary, junior high and high school students with the goal of allowing them more leeway to be creative instead of focusing solely on rote memorization of facts and figures — the key components of what was known as “entrance exam hell” at the time. Under yutori kyoiku, schools cut students’ exposure to math, science, history, English and Japanese, and effectively ended most Saturday classes.

The policy was later blamed for dumbing down kids’ skills, and schools later reverted back to the rote memorization approach.

“It is clear that amid the declining number of children, universities are rushing to create new departments (to attract students) in order to survive. This is leading to lower academic achievement,” Toshihiro Kawamoto, chairman of the Japan Achievement Society, said in his book “Nabakari Daigakusei — Nihongata Kyouiku Seido no Shuuen” (“University Students in Name Only — the End of the Japanese Education System”), published in December 2009.

The relaxed education policy didn’t lower academic achievement across the board, but widened the gap between the academically inclined and the challenged because some children continued to study hard at cram schools while others opted not to after realizing they would be able to get into university easily, he said in the book.

What can universities or the government do to rectify the problem?

Keeping the door open to people who want to go to college is not a bad thing, but universities must make students hit the books harder and make it more difficult to graduate, Kawamoto said in his book.

He noted that university students in Japan probably face the loosest academic requirements for graduation. Japan’s university dropout rate was 10 percent in 2005, the lowest in a survey of 27 developed countries, according to OECD statistics in Kawamoto’s book. The average dropout rate listed by the OECD was 31 percent, with Italy at 55 percent and the United States at 53 percent.

Of course, poor academic performance is not the only factor behind dropout rates.

Although less the case in Japan, in other economies some people are forced to drop out because they can’t afford the cost while others are eager to jump into the workforce before graduation.

But Kawamoto is very critical of the domestic situation: “Japan’s current educational environment is one in which high school students who don’t study can enter universities, and university students who don’t study can graduate. This is a global rarity.”

An easy solution to halt the decline in academic levels would be to decrease the quota for university enrollment. But that is not the right way to go, Kawamoto said.

“For example, decreasing the number of medical students will result in a shortage of doctors. Similarly, decreasing the number of university students will result in a shortage of skilled people,” he said. “We should expand and educate students instead of scaling things down.”

Accepting more foreign students with strong skills and knowledge will improve the overall academic achievement statistics. Foreign students, mainly at universities but also at other schools, numbered 49,000 in 1991 and 140,000 in 2010. The government aims to raise the number to 300,000 by 2025.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp