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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:31 03/09/2007
Debate: Comment

Japanese University Reforms: Time to Ask the Big Questions

Daniel Dolan (Director, Global Communication Strategy, Weber Shandwick Worldwide, Japan)

Recent recommendations for university reforms in Japan resemble some kind of awkward dance: a few steps forward and a few steps back. For example, resolution of questions regarding institutional autonomy and other structural issues are of course fundamental to reform processes. But preceeding and informing all such decisions should be a nation-wide re-examination of the big questions, including reconsideration of the role of institutions of higher learning in society. In an earlier essay on this website by Shumpei Kumon titled "University Reform in the Information Age"
(, Professor Kumon insightfully identifies a gradual shifting in the roles of instructors and the needs of learners. I would add to these observations questions such as What should be the central goals and missions of universities? and How can potentially competing interests among stakeholders best be prioritized and served?

The first question regarding the proper roles of universities was in fact taken up in 2001 by the Central Council for Education, an advisory body to the Education Minister. As reported by an Asahi Shimbun editorial from November 27, 2001, the Council was tasked with reviewing and potentially revising the Basic Education Law of 1947, which states in part that universities should advance the "perfection of human character." I fully support review of the Law, particularly if the result is confirmation of the original charter. Persons unfamiliar with the Basic Education Law might be excused for assuming that in Japan it must be written somewhere that universities exist primarily to funnel graduating students to corporations. I have heard several graduates of prestigious Japanese universities describe their final year at school as little more than a company research and selection process. Surely there are exceptions to this scenario, and such idling students may in fact be in the minority, but there does seem to be a national understanding that the operational philosophy of many universities is to act largely as feeders for companies. This view, however valid, contrasts significantly with the original aims of the Basic Education Law, which was born of a reaction to the pre-war emphasis on the welfare of the nation over the individual.

If upon considerable nation-wide reflection Japan determines that universities indeed should fundamentally be concerned with nurturing the personal growth and discovery of learners (with the reasonable assumption that commerce will eventually benefit from the eventual participation in the workforce of adventurous, creative and motivated individuals), the way forward likely will be slow and painful. World-class universities in Japan clearly are possible, but corporations, university administrations and professors all have various incentives to maintain the status quo.

Students have the most to gain from reforms in the short term, so just as with so many other social movements from the past a coordinated but long-term series of pushes from the youth may be necessary to kick-start changes. But first students need to recognize that some among them are being cheated out of a potentially life-changing experience—that there is something better to push for—and then they need a forum in which to make their needs known. One potentially effective launching point can be seen by examining formal student feedback mechanisms in place in most US universities. For example, at the Center for Instructional Development and Research at the University of Washington (where I was an education consultant for two years) voluntary and regimented student feedback sessions are facilitated mid-course by consultants at the request of instructors. Often there are just two questions posed to students: What is working well for you in this class?, and What would you like to see changed? The effectiveness of such processes depends on the rigor with which they are designed and executed and the sensitivity with which feedback data is interpreted. When done well the result is increased awareness by instructors of student needs while there is still time to make changes in a course to better meet these needs. Such feedback mechanisms are of course just a small part of a large effort necessary for instituting meaningful university reforms. But if Japan is to increase its population of critically thinking and socially responsible adults to ensure future competitiveness and high quality of life, the needs of students must come first.

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