Japan mulls shifting its academic year to get in step with the West

5807-japan David McNeill for The Chronicle

An internal panel at the U. of Tokyo is considering moving the start of its academic year from spring to fall. That could be problematic: Japanese companies typically hire graduates en masse in March.

Enlarge Image close 5807-japan David McNeill for The Chronicle

An internal panel at the U. of Tokyo is considering moving the start of its academic year from spring to fall. That could be problematic: Japanese companies typically hire graduates en masse in March.

By Da­vid Mc­Neill


When Japan was hit by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami in March, casualties at the nation's universities were mercifully low. The reason: Campuses were mostly empty as thousands of students were at home till April, when Japan's academic year begins.

That's been one of the few times when Ja­pan's edu­ca­tion­al re­form­ers have ap­plaud­ed the spring start, which is widely seen as causing headaches. It puts the na­tion's universities out of sync with most of the plan­et, huge­ly com­pli­cat­ing ex­changes, the hir­ing of for­eign facul­ty, and the re­cruit­ing of overseas students.

Few­er than 3 per­cent of stu­dents at Ja­pan's most pres­ti­gious high­er-edu­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tion, the University of To­kyo, are from abroad, a long way be­hind top West­ern col­leges. Increasing that percentage requires bring­ing the ac­a­dem­ic cal­en­dar into line with else­where, says Ma­sa­ko Egawa, an executive vice president at the university. "In­ter­na­tion­al­iz­ing edu­ca­tion and re­search is a very, very high pri­or­i­ty for us, and we must bring Ja­pan in sync with oth­er coun­tries to a­chieve that."

Dis­cus­sion on start­ing in the fall and grad­u­at­ing Jap­a­nese stu­dents in the late spring or fall has been around since the 1980s, but the de­bate has moved up a gear with news that the University of To­kyo, known as Todai, is mull­ing the move. An in­ter­nal pan­el is ex­pect­ed to re­port by the end the year.

Its deci­sion could fun­da­men­tal­ly al­ter the na­tion's en­tire high­er-edu­ca­tion system, pre­dicts Akiyoshi Yo­ne­za­wa, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Graduate School of International Development at Na­goy­a University. "If Todai changes, the oth­er top in­sti­tu­tions will fol­low, and that will change the cul­ture of uni­ver­si­ties," he says.

The ar­gu­ments for and against have been well re­hearsed. Shift­ing to fall en­roll­ment would har­mo­nize the world's third-larg­est edu­ca­tion system with the West, making it eas­i­er for Jap­a­nese uni­ver­si­ties to at­tract for­eign tal­ent and stim­u­late ac­a­dem­ic co­op­er­a­tion. Ms. Egawa cites stu­dent ex­changes with Yale University as just one area that suf­fers un­der the cur­rent system, which keeps Jap­a­nese stu­dents in class­rooms un­til July. Stu­dents, she says, "miss parts of reg­u­lar courses if they go to sum­mer school in Yale."

Synchronizing with the Western calendar would be popular among faculty members as well, says Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Tokyo's Sophia University. "There may be a small minority who would worry that the synchronization might lead to student brain drain—competitive students going to U.S. universities—but I doubt that that would be much of a factor."

But the bar­ri­ers to change are con­sid­er­a­ble. For one thing, Jap­a­nese com­pa­nies hire uni­ver­si­ty grad­u­ates en mas­se in March, right after graduation, in­stead of through­out the year. With­out a change in six dec­ades of cor­po­rate hir­ing prac­tices, hun­dreds of thou­sands of grad­u­at­ing stu­dents would have to wait months to work, till March of the fol­low­ing year. Econ­o­mists pon­der the im­pact on al­ready bur­dened house­holds of having to sup­port graduates till the first pay­check ar­rives.

Then there are uni­ver­si­ty en­trance ex­ams, taken by high-school stu­dents in January and February. What will those stu­dents do till the start of uni­ver­si­ty class­es in Sep­tem­ber, and how would the six-month gap af­fect al­ready de­clin­ing math and sci­ence skills? One idea, says Ms. Egawa, is to as­sign vol­un­teer work or over­seas study dur­ing the lull. "Com­pared to stu­dents from oth­er coun­tries, the range of stu­dent ex­pe­ri­ences in Ja­pan is nar­row," she points out. "That six months might cre­ate a win­dow for stu­dents to do some­thing oth­er than just cram­ming for an exam."

The de­bate has be­come more press­ing as prob­lems in Ja­pan's high­er-edu­ca­tion sec­tor grow. The March dis­as­ter has bad­ly dent­ed a gov­ern­ment plan to al­most tri­ple the num­ber of for­eign stu­dents, to 300,000, which many ob­serv­ers viewed as op­ti­mis­tic any­way. Jap­a­nese uni­ver­si­ties are also send­ing too few stu­dents to study a­broad and in­creas­ing­ly los­ing the com­pet­i­tive bat­tle to re­cruit for­eign ac­a­dem­ic tal­ent to more dynam­ic re­gion­al ri­vals like Hong Kong, Sin­ga­pore, and even South Ko­re­a.

Some of the coun­try's top uni­ver­si­ties al­ready, in ef­fect, run dual sys­tems, en­roll­ing the bulk of their un­der­grad­u­ates in the spring and bring­ing in for­eign mas­ter's and Ph.D. stu­dents in the fall, at their own dis­cre­tion. Can that be ex­tend­ed to in­clude ev­ery stu­dent in the coun­try?

Mr. Yo­ne­za­wa is skep­ti­cal.

"Most lo­cal uni­ver­si­ties ca­ter to Jap­a­nese needs and don't have to meet glob­al stand­ards." He says it is "not realistic" that stu­dents can af­ford a half-year break, ei­ther fi­nan­cial­ly or ac­a­demi­cal­ly.

Ei­ther way, he con­cludes, the rest of the coun­try can­not make the leap with­out the University of To­kyo, which has pro­vid­ed many of the country's po­lit­i­cal, in­dus­tri­al, and ac­a­dem­ic lead­ers for over a cen­tu­ry.

Sources in­side the uni­ver­si­ty say the pan­el dis­cus­sion is currently bal­anced 50-50 for and against the change. What­ev­er the fi­nal re­sult, it is like­ly to spark an­oth­er round of de­bate on why Japanese uni­ver­si­ties are strug­gling to in­ter­na­tion­al­ize—and what can be done to fix it.

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