GLOCOM Platform
Debates Media Reviews Tech Reviews Special Topics Books & Journals
Summary Page
Search with Google
Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:31 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (August 12, 2002)

Japanese University Reform: The Swiss Connection

J. Sean Curtin (Professor, Japanese Red Cross University)

In April 2002, the Switzerland-based Institute for Management and Development (IMD) released its annual report on the international competitiveness of 49 major countries, ranking Japan in 30th place.* IMD has an extensive list of criteria and subcategories from which it produces its final league table. One section concentrates on university education, assessing if it meets the needs of a competitive economy. In this particular area Japan hit rock bottom, being ranked last. Although I am not convinced that Japanese universities deserve such a low Swiss ranking, the IMD report certainly highlights the need for meaningful reform. The abysmal result certainly caught the attention of many in the Japanese business community.**

In Japan, the IMD has also been actively contributing to the higher education debate through its distinguished professor of international political economy, Jean-Pierre Lehmann. In a series of articles in the Japan Times he has eloquently argued for a vigorous Japanese intellectual renaissance and genuine university reform.***

In one of his essays, he compares Japan to the Ottoman Empire in its death throws, calling it "the sick man of the intellectual community." Bemoaning what he personally sees as Japan's poor capacity of analysis and sparse intellectual elite, he passionately calls for revitalizing reforms.***

Parallels with the decline of the Ottoman Empire are still popular in Europe. Margaret Thatcher, the former British Prime Minister, once famously labeled Britain as the sick man of Europe and more recently German has been called the economic sick man of Europe. Declining birthrates and economic recession have already resulted in major shifts within Japanese higher education and many more changes are certain to come. A number of universities have already gone out of business and some scholars predict many more will soon follow suit.**** Despite the magnitude of the current challenges facing Japanese universities, they will no doubt emerge from their sick man status in better shape, just like Britain did in the 1980s.

I agree with Professor Lehmann's view that the Japanese education system does not encourage students to ask questions or to become too inquisitive. This reflects a broader social trend. In fact, asking too many questions is often considered rude by many Japanese people. On the global stage, a reluctance to ask questions does often make Japanese students and academics seem much less dynamic than their international counterparts. Professor Lehmann observes, "In international meetings, the comment is repeatedly made how remarkably little the Japanese have to say."*** While this may be true, I certainly do not think this particular social trait means we can or should conclude that Japanese people have no actual opinions or nothing of value to say.

Compared with the rough and tumble of British university students, the sea of quiet faces that normally greets one during a ninety-minute lecture in Japan can sometimes be a little unnerving. However, over a decade of teaching has taught me that Japanese students definitely do hold a wide variety of views on most matters. The real challenge is getting them to reveal what they actually think. This is not such a hard task in a small tutorial size group, but when it comes to a regular size class sometimes the sound of silence reigns supreme.

Since, it is rare that anyone voluntarily asks a question during lectures, I always get students to write a short class report at the end of lessons. This practice is quite common in the Japanese universities where I teach. As teacher-student interactions are so limited in a large class, this kind of method is often the only way to find out what students have actually gained from the lesson. Such methods reveal that Japanese students have no problem in formulating opinions, even if they are unwilling to express them verbally.

It would certainly be good, if the Japanese education system encouraged students to be more inquisitive and to better develop their analytical skills. For this to happen would require some major changes in the way students are taught in school. Some Japanese oppose this suggestion by arguing that it is unfair to expect the entire country to change its social dynamics just to conform to some ill-defined global standard. On the other hand, advocates for change tend to point out that society is never static and is constantly evolving. In the global age, failure to meet international standards will reduce economic competitiveness.

Professor Lehmann and his colleagues at the Switzerland-based Institute for Management and Development have made an impact on the debate about what shape Japanese higher educational reforms should take. It will be interesting to see how many of these Swiss suggestions work their way into actual policy. The next decade promises to be a memorable one from which the university system should emerge renewed.


* Economic Performance Rankings: US and Japan, NBR'S JAPAN FORUM
J. Sean Curtin, Tuesday 30 April 2002

IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook and The Rankings

International Institute for Management Development in Switzerland

** Education key to boosting Japan's competitiveness
Yoshio Nakamura, The Japan Times, 22 July 2002

*** 'Sick man' of the intellectual community
Jean-Pierre Lehmann, The Japan Times, 5 August 2002

Great country; pity about the institutions
Jean-Pierre Lehmann, The Japan Times, 8 July 2002

**** Abunai dagaku - Kieru daigaku 2003 [Going broke universities - Disappearing universities: 2003], Kiyoshi Shimano, Tokyo: Yell Shupansha, 2002.

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications