The consensus says Japanese university students are lazy and apathetic. Unfavorable comparisons are made with Chinese studying here. Yet those same students at their annual autumn festivals can show an enthusiasm, professionalism and attention to detail superior to anything at a Western university, or a Chinese university for that matter.

When I try to find the reason for all this effort, the main reply is mokuteki tassei kan, or the feeling of having achieved something.

This, I suggest, is the key problem with the education system here. It does not provide that feeling of achievement, for several reasons. One is that Japan by nature is not a very intellectual society. The value of abstract learning for its own sake is weakly realized. In the science or engineering departments, students apply themselves. The problems are mainly in the liberal arts faculties.

Japan’s groupism is another problem. Failing weak or lazy students and having them expelled from the allegedly warm and cozy bosom of the university group is almost impossible, both practically and psychologically.

Teachers, too, try to retain their group identity by playing up to students. The result is a version of the old communist regime joke that said the workers pretended to work and the bosses pretended to pay them. Here in Japan, often it is that teachers pretend to teach and students pretend to study.

Some mid-ranking universities show more responsibility. But at elite universities, horror stories of student and teacher negligence abound. Both assume that status imparts impunity. Some ex-students boast how they graduated without doing a day of serious study.

A key theme in the several Ministry of Education committees I attended during the 1990s was that universities should grade students strictly. But how can you force teachers to provide strict grades in the first place? In any case the worst that can happen to students with poor grades is to have them repeat a year — something most universities prefer to avoid.

I never managed to get a serious answer to these points. The bureaucrats were part of the same conspiracy, I concluded.

Employers are equally guilty. Most do their recruiting well before final grades are available. Many just assume graduates from elite universities are superior. In a top businessman’s committee back in those days — when education reform was a popular topic — I recall a well-known industry captain saying how poor grades could prove the student had the sense not to waste time on irrelevant university study.

Today things could be getting even worse. For as student numbers decline, and university numbers increase, standards will tend to fall even more as more universities compete for fewer students.

But all is not lost. Parents are increasingly reluctant to pay out large sums to irresponsible universities so their children can enjoy four years of “leisure-land” existence as it is often called. They are turning to the mid-ranking universities that make efforts to improve. Some more enlightened enterprises also now seek graduates from those universities.

But how do you prove that you have improved? The current fad is an emphasis on English teaching, with the TOEFL or TOEIC results for English exams used as objective standards. An experimental university with which I am involved has done quite well on that basis. For many firms, English ability is now useful in employment. But should those English exams be the main standard of student and teaching excellence?

Ultimately it comes back to inserting proper motivation into the classroom. Currently the demand is for teachers to make their classes more “enjoyable.” So teachers have to become like song and dance artists?

There is only one sensible answer — provide clear, across-the-board incentives that give students the sense of achievement they crave. Tests and exams are of little use when the aim of most teachers and universities is simply to hand out pass marks and get rid of repeaters.

Some years back I tried to promote a scheme called “provisional entry.” Students who just failed to pass university entrance tests could be accepted for one year and confirmed as regular students if their first-year results were good. Even though the scheme was endorsed by the 1999 national conference on education reform, few have shown interest. Yet the one university that has tried the scheme has found that almost all the provisional students do as well as or better than the first-year regular students.

Japan’s closed academic world needs to discover what almost every Western university knows — that if the carrot of self-improvement is not enough to make people study then it has to be the whip of failure. This means failure to graduate, and failure to find a good job. That kind of incentive does wonders to clarify the mind and spur motivation. Ideally every student in Japan should be “provisional,” and not just for one year.

Such a scheme would also provide the badly needed motivation to encourage less academically minded school graduates to seek technical education rather than waste time at universities.

As for the current emphasis on English to prove academic excellence, obviously it does no harm. But with bad teachers — either those retreaded high school teachers unable to speak English properly or the grammar-obsessed Ph.D.s for example — often the teaching simply reinforces the bad English being taught in middle and high schools. Far better to have the language taught intensively as part of a double degree — economics and English, for example — to students who choose it and really want to use it in their future careers. Here the motivation factor is guaranteed. Meanwhile, other languages, Chinese especially, could also be taught on the same double degree basis. Japan does not have to survive on English alone.

Gregory Clark is formerly president of Tama University and vice president of Akita International University. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on www.gregoryclark.net. His book “Naze Nihon no Kyoiku wa kawaranai no desuka?” was published by Toyo Keizai in 2003.

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