CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Last week a conference was held in Kyushu under the auspices of the pioneer Ritsumeikan Asia-Pacific University, whose student body and faculty are divided between Japanese and foreigners of many nationalities. The conference was original in that it also involved students representing several dozen other universities. All gathered in Beppu city to discuss the crucial issue of tourism in our times — from “dynamic,” “sustainable” and “boundless” angles. Scores of educators, from Ritsumeikan and other foreign universities attended.
Crowning the deliberations was a surprise appearance by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who addressed the general assembly. He expressed his personal commitment to increasing the number of tourists to Japan as well as his faith in the students as future leaders of the region.
The debates at Beppu cannot be easily summarized, although a recent supplement in The Economist gives a vivid picture of related arguments, challenges and problems pertaining to academia in these changing times.
A core issue was the enormous difficulty that almost all academic institutions have in attracting the maximum number of students. Universities are now losing some of their aura surrounding the goal, implicit in their genesis, of “acquiring every sort of knowledge.”
Necessities of the global era make it imperative for students to strive for knowledge without losing sight of a decent place in a perilously shrinking workforce. A genuine thirst for learning still exists, but the quest for a future job usually overshadows other considerations.
No wonder then that faculties and departments feel compelled to adjust, offering more programs related to the agonizing quest for jobs, thus relegating studies in the humanities to rather obscure corners of teaching and studying, since they can hardly offer greatly promising prospects for a professional future.
The new trends affect not only students and programs but also the role of top academic officers. Their performance under academic or administrative criteria is valued less than before, as the priority is on their fundraising abilities! This is sad, but we must consider the needs of pure economic survival. “Recruit or perish” echoes the old axiom “publish or perish.”
This situation does not necessarily have only negative connotations. Fierce competition leads to a dynamic drive toward inter-university cooperation, exchanges and linkages, replicating the paradigm of joint business ventures. This phenomenon leads in turn to more openness and international collaboration, both at the faculty and student levels.
Yet, despite these efforts, a problem remains: The costs of running today’s universities demand innovative concepts that increase prospects for recruitment. High-quality lecturers may draw more students, but they also expect higher pay, thus continuing the vicious cycle of budgetary acrobatics.
I personally share the anxieties of many academic interlocutors who, by the way, also must face other challenges such as complying with directives from central educational authorities, taking on heavy additional administrative burdens, and resolving the harmonious division between teaching and research duties.
Constant emphasis on the “diptych” — numbers of students vs. job prospects — overshadows another dimension: our growing population of senior citizens, who are also in need of educational attention. Not everyone is interested in academia for the sole purpose of securing a job in the workforce. Plenty of successful retirees are ready to attend a lecture hall to gain pure knowledge or to accomplish a dream that their professional careers had made unattainable when they were young.
As example, consider the case of a friend, a distinguished professor at Harvard, who found time to sit with undergraduates simply because he needed to add another foreign language to his outstanding academic record.
I could also add a personal observation from the Beppu conference. The superb new National Museum of Kyushu seemed to be suffering from astonishing success. There were so many people, especially senior citizens, from all over Japan that viewing the exhibits was quite a problem. This shows that a vast reservoir of people in their twilight years are still eager to acquire knowledge independently of job considerations.
At the risk of sounding naive, I would urge that we try to figure out specific new programs that are compatible with the wishes and abilities of the senior segment of our populations. In doing so, we should perhaps establish different types of degrees to be awarded to them — degrees that are still academically attractive and valid yet different from the ones awarded to younger, conventional students. In this way, even the slightest hint of competition between the two groups could be eliminated.
If officials and educators paid more attention to the potential of senior citizens, not only might some of the universities’ budgetary problems be reduced, but also a particular segment of our societies could be driven out of boredom and neglect into participation and the joy of learning.
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