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When the Central Council for Education announced its proposal for the creation of higher education institutions specializing in a vocational curriculum, the news was greeted with widespread enthusiasm. At present, vocational courses in Japan are largely restricted to high schools. But the rapidly changing demands of the global economy make it clear that the issue is more complex than it appears at first glance.

By requiring all students to earn at least 30 to 40 percent of their credits through practical courses and exercises at companies, the plan will help prepare graduates to find immediate employment upon graduation. Too many university graduates who have majored in the traditional liberal arts remain unemployed or underemployed, creating a drag on the economy.

How the government proposal will be met by the higher education community, however, is unclear. Turf wars in academe are notorious for their vehemence and duration. If existing universities view the new universities as competition for students, the plan is likely to be closely scrutinized and opposed before it is finally approved.

Although vocational universities would be a first for Japan, similar universities have a long history in the United States. The Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 funded land-grant universities by giving federally controlled land to the states to sell to establish institutions specializing in agriculture, science and engineering. This mission represented a dramatic break with the focus of universities at the time on abstract liberal arts.

The first land-grant university was Kansas State University, which opened on Sept. 3, 1863. Other state universities soon followed, until today the original land-grant institutions have become public universities offering a full range of educational courses that have made them virtually indistinguishable from other universities.

More recently, the U.S. realized that sub-specialization was needed. Accordingly, sea-grant colleges began in 1966 and space grant colleges began in 1988. The trend is toward even further sub-specialization.

The debate over any vocational university, whether in Japan or the U.S., involves the difference between education and training. While they overlap, they are not interchangeable. Education is concerned with concepts; training is concerned with techniques. The problem with training is that it is specific to a particular field. But in a dynamic marketplace, techniques are not easily transferable to new conditions.

The risk, therefore, is that what has been learned today may prove to be irrelevant tomorrow.

For Japan, the risk is especially high.

Its productivity has grown very slowly since the early 1990s. To remedy the situation, Japan will need more than skilled technicians. It will need thinkers who can see beyond the immediate situation, managers who can communicate with engineers, and marketers who can increase brand recognition, according to Bloomberg View. That’s precisely why Japan needs graduates in the social sciences and humanities.

Japan will also likely find out that degrees from vocational universities don’t have the same cachet as those from elite universities. For example, graduates from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in the U.S. are more in demand and earn higher salaries than graduates from state universities who have majored in the same subjects. Recruiters seem to place greater emphasis on the prestige of the university than on its educational content.

None of these caveats means that Japan should jettison its plan for vocational universities. They can play an important part of the overall strategy to make tertiary education and training more useful. But it’s important not to place unrealistic hopes on both.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the United States.

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