After a proposal led by the University of Tokyo to start the academic year in the fall was abandoned, the university’s strategy for encouraging students to internationalize will attempt an interim measure of setting up a quarterly system. The change, while not as sweeping as the original proposal, will at least be a move toward encouraging Japanese students to study abroad. It will also encourage other Japanese universities to find more flexible ways for students to gain global skills, knowledge and experience. If they continue as is, they and their students will find themselves increasingly isolated in a globalizing world.

The University of Tokyo has led the national push for students to study abroad. That goal should not be abandoned. The need to globalize Japanese education remains as urgent as ever.

However, because of deep resistance to changing to autumn enrollment for the school year, the limited proposal to break the school year into quarters will at least have the important benefit of making the schedule more flexible.

In Japan, flexibility alone is a large step toward internationalizing. The extreme rigidity of the entire university schedule, not just which month the school year starts, means that many students remain trapped into staying at home rather than adventuring out to other languages, ways of thinking and experiences. Dividing the semester system into quarters has the potential to make the schedule adaptable to student’s educational needs, rather than having students always conform to the system.

The proposal at the University of Tokyo would divide the current two-semester system into a four-quarter system. Classes would meet twice a week for eight weeks rather than once a week for 15 weeks. This set-up would allow students to more easily go abroad, for anywhere from one to four quarters. That could provide them with many chances to gain such valuable experiences.

This change to a quarter system is certainly in line with many other developed countries, where students take fewer classes at a time, but meet more times per week.

All too often, Japanese students’ current load of many classes meeting only once a week means that students tend to receive nothing more than overviews of subjects, instead of challenging approaches that develop active skills and deeper knowledge through reinforcement and concentration. Intensive study, whether of a content area or a foreign language, gives students and teachers more opportunities for discussions, group work, presentations and other meaningful learning activities.

Before an autumn start to the school year can be fully implemented, the resistance to the proposal will need to be addressed. One problem mentioned about changing to autumn is fitting the school year with national exams for graduate and professional schools and for licenses. Currently, those exams, like most university entrance exams, are given only once a year. The solution, of course, is not to simply maintain the status quo, but to change those exam schedules, or at least make them more flexible.

Resistance to the proposal no doubt also came from companies that hire employees on tightly pre-set schedules. Companies will need to review their hiring practices to better accommodate a variety of graduation times. In the past, companies’ hiring of graduating students fit a very exacting timeline.

But now, students more often study abroad, delay graduation, or otherwise fail to perfectly fit companies’ strict timelines. Companies could help education become more flexible by accommodating a variety of educational patterns.

Another resistance to changing to autumn enrollment is confusion over what students might do with the gap term between graduation and the start of employment. However, most universities are already working hard to set up internships, study programs, volunteer experiences and other learning situations outside the classroom. There has even been a mini boom in both nonprofit organizations and businesses that help university as well as high school students get beyond the confines of their classrooms into the real world during break times.

The University of Tokyo’s small change to a quarter system is at least one small step in the right direction. In order to keep moving towards internationalization, the current system needs to find ways for students to develop not only global understanding and competitive skills, but also ways to teach them how to make autonomous choices in how and what they study and when. Moving to a quarter system should also be a way of helping students develop independence, broad-mindedness and decision-making abilities.

Many reform-minded educators will feel disappointed with the failure to soon align Japan’s system with other countries. However, the interim step of a quarter system offers secondary benefits that should contribute to the larger goal of globalizing Japanese education. The new proposal has the potential to release students from the current static, stay-at-home system and introduce greater fluidity and variety into university schedules, studying approaches and range of options.

The academic schedule, though, is still a single issue. More important is the discussion itself and the hope it will inspire, not just allow, students to study abroad. As administrators, teachers, students, parents, employers and other members of society become more aware of the need for students to internationalize, more proposals — and solutions — can be found.

The Japanese educational system should integrate with the world, but also it needs to have its internal barriers removed so that students can really learn, both here and abroad.

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