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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