National

Japan shouldn't rush decision on academic year, scholars caution

Group says switch to a September start would require “10 years or more” of follow-up and have huge financial implications

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff writer

The government shouldn’t rush to reach a decision on pushing back the start of an academic year to September, a prospect that would entail momentous changes to the nation’s educational system and possibly cost universities billions of yen in losses, a group of scholars said in a statement Monday.

In the petition, submitted to the education ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office, the Japanese Educational Research Association stressed the need for “thorough, nationwide discussions” on the abruptly floated idea of shifting the start of Japan’s academic year to fall from the current April.

The rationale for such a historic shift — which, if realized, would call for a root-and-branch overhaul of the nation’s century-old school calendar — is to give teachers and students a chance to wait until the coronavirus may have relented in September before starting school life afresh. Most schools currently remain closed due to the virus, making them hard-pressed to complete the designated curriculum if the current year ends next April as scheduled.

Despite increasing calls for the September enrollment, the group on Monday said the shift “could further confuse and exacerbate the current situation.”

The change, it cautioned, would not only necessitate a shakeup of the current educational system that could eventually take “10 years or more” to follow through on, but also have huge financial implications.

For example, pushing back the official start of the current academic year to September might ignite calls for universities to reimburse students for tuition from April to August, even though many of them have already started teaching classes — albeit remotely — for this semester. Such a massive refund could cost private universities alone nearly ¥1 trillion, said Teruyuki Hirota, professor of education sociology at Nihon University, at a news conference in Tokyo.

While proponents for the shift often claim the September enrollment would bring Japan in line with global standards and potentially facilitate exchange student programs in universities, the petitioners said implications for lower-level education have largely gone unnoticed.

The five-month postponement will enable an additional number of pupils to grow old enough to qualify for enrollment by September, they pointed out, citing an estimate that roughly 1.5 times more than the usual number of first-year elementary students would enter — and, therefore, “inundate” — schools nationwide during the first year the shift was implemented. Hirota added that a postponement of even just five months may inevitably involve “an enormous amount of work” being put into an overhaul of the curriculum guidelines designed by the education ministry.

In the worst-case scenario, pupils may also have to start their mandatory education at 7 years and 5 months old, which would make them among the world’s oldest new admissions for such tuition, the group said. This, the petitioners argued, would fly in the face of the current global trend toward initiating mandatory education in early childhood.

Above all, what is needed now is to invest more robustly in an effort to resolve other more pressing issues, said Akio Inui, another petitioner who is a professor emeritus at Tokyo Metropolitan University. Those include bolstering the digital infrastructure needed for online classes, he added, describing such provision as “an area where Japan is the least prepared among other developed countries.”

However, the group’s petition might constitute a somewhat unpopular opinion. Recent opinion polls by the media show the public is rather skewed toward supporting a September start for the academic year.

Children wearing face masks attend an entrance ceremony held at an elementary school in Marumori, Miyagi Prefecture, on April 8. | KYODO
Children wearing face masks attend an entrance ceremony held at an elementary school in Marumori, Miyagi Prefecture, on April 8. | KYODO

A Yomiuri Shimbun poll conducted over the weekend found that 54 percent support the idea, versus 34 percent who oppose it. A separate survey by the influential Nikkei business daily likewise pointed to a similar trend, with approval ratings especially higher among youths aged under 40.

Ever since its emergence, the prospect of a September enrollment has garnered enthusiastic support from several political leaders including Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike and Osaka Gov. Hirofumi Yoshimura, who have hailed it as a long-overdue “paradigm shift” that could “make it easier for our youth to be active in the world.”

On Monday, Hirota accused the governors of advertising only the perceived benefits despite them not being familiar with the reality of the Japanese education system.

“I can’t help but think they have no inkling what huge disruptions such a shift would cause, both financially and systematically,” he said.

The Japanese Educational Research Association’s petition followed a similar statement issued by the National Congress of Parents and Teachers Association of Japan earlier this month.

In that statement, the congress said September enrollment would make the nation’s academic year fall out of line with its fiscal year, which starts in April, possibly causing inconvenience. It would also destroy the time-honored Japanese tradition of welcoming the enrollment of new pupils under the spectacle of cherry trees in full sakura bloom, which graces the streets in spring, the group said.

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