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I recently took part in discussions with the presidents of some Japanese universities for a summer review. One of the topics we discussed was the concept of continuing education, also known as recurrent education. This issue needs to be considered from both macro and micro viewpoints.

Let me first discuss the big-picture issues of recurrent education. There is little question that the manufacturing industry led Japan’s reconstruction after World War II. But today, the weight of manufacturing in Japan’s GDP has shrunk to less than a quarter of the total. Japan’s manufacturing industry, characterized by its high productivity, is certainly a national treasure that must be cherished into the future. However, I imagine that no one thinks the manufacturing industry’s share of the Japanese economy will rise again.

The driving force of Japan’s economy and society will be new service industries, such as the information technology sector. Today, the world’s top five companies in terms of aggregate market value are tech startups such as those often referred to collectively as GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon).

Japan must realize that unless it succeeds in nurturing unicorn startup companies — successful startups valued at over $1 billion — the future growth of its economy will not be guaranteed. It is estimated that there are about 100 unicorn businesses in the United States and about the same number in China. Unfortunately, Japan has hardly any such firms.

In the manufacturing industry, production machinery and equipment play a central role. A global look at manufacturing industries shows that only about 40 percent of people employed in the sector have received higher education. To put it bluntly, employees in the manufacturing sector mostly require the ability to cooperate with others and persevere in their work, rather than rely on creativity or deep knowledge.

Some of Japan’s educational trends match the needs of the manufacturing industry. Only slightly more than 50 percent of high school graduates in Japan go on to higher education, well below the OECD average of more than 60 percent. Even if high school graduates do advance to university, Japanese companies hardly consider the academic records of potential new hires. Instead they place emphasis on their performance in job interviews.

In contrast, it is said that more than 90 percent of employees at unicorn startups have at least a bachelor’s degree and most executives at these firms have post-graduate education. In other words, changes in the industrial sector call for more highly educated workers.

If Japan wants to give birth to unicorn startups, its only choice will be to pursue the creation of a society educated to the same high levels as those in advanced Western powers. This is the fundamental reason why recurrent education is necessary in Japan. And no institutions other than universities can take charge of providing the high level of recurrent education that is necessary.

Let us then consider the issue from a micro viewpoint. Students at Japanese universities are world famous for not studying. Only one-eighth of Japanese university graduates acquire the habit of studying while enrolled. I am not saying that the Japanese are lazy people. It is only that students have no incentive to study hard in an environment where businesses do not demand good academic records when they recruit new employees.

The annual working hours of full-time employees in Japan has not fallen at all over the past quarter century — about 2,000 hours. In this country, once people start working after graduating from school they are very busy. As a result, only one-third of Japanese workers are ready to engage in self-motivated study or research.

What is then needed to provide recurrent education for Japanese workers? First and foremost, they need enough time to be able to study. At a minimum, annual working hours should be reduced to around 1,500 through the introduction of work-interval regulations and tighter rules on overtime work.

The next issue is how to provide workers with the incentive to study. For example, how about companies lending money to cover tuition when scouting candidates for executive positions? Employees will have a greater incentive to study if obtaining a master’s degree or a doctorate ensures promotion to higher positions. This system can, of course, be applied to current workers as well as prospective employees. The employers only have to require the workers to have a master’s degree or a doctorate if they want a promotion, and to provide the loans to help them obtain these advanced degrees.

Creating such a program alone would not be enough, however. Universities must establish a system that facilitates the ability of company employees to obtain a master’s degree or doctorate while working.

One way is to utilize online education. A new type of university that provides all online education, like Minerva Schools at KGI, has emerged. We should consider online education as the main pillar combined with offline education in the evening hours or on holidays, as well as shortening the period for completing education courses.

It will be necessary to work out curricula that enable students to acquire a master’s degree in one year and a doctoral degree in one to two years. To realize this, the nation’s education policies will need to be more flexible and liberalized. Both the government and the private sector should explore what can be done to establish a recurrent education system that will allow workers to continue their education at a relatively low cost. Both parties should share a sense of crisis that unless Japan succeeds in this endeavor, it will find itself facing national decline in the future.

Al-Azhar University in Cairo, established in 970 and one of the world’s oldest universities, has three famous principles that can be paraphrased as: (1) Students can come to the university when they want to study and take only the classes that interest them; (2) students can graduate at any time if they think they have studied sufficiently; and (3) students can come back to the university whenever they want to study again.

These principles embody the essence of recurrent education. It is unthinkable that 21st century Japan cannot do what a 10th century university was able to do.

Haruaki Deguchi is the president of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Beppu, Oita Prefecture. A popular lecturer and the author of more than 30 books, he founded Lifenet Insurance in 2008 after a career spanning nearly 35 years at Nippon Life Insurance Co.

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