University of Tokyo seeks talent through reforms

May 23, 2013


Concerned that it has become too homogenous, the University of Tokyo is taking bold steps to create a more varied student body. The nation’s top university has become desperate for the brightest students, from home and abroad, who could influence other students for the better.

Partly due to a national recession, the institution is seeing fewer students from prefectures outside Tokyo. Nearly 40 percent of those that passed the entrance exam this year were graduates from Tokyo high schools.

Only 0.5 percent study abroad, much lower than the national average of 2 percent, according to a joint survey by The Asahi Shimbun and the Kawai Juku preparatory school.

According to professors, after successfully entering the university, some students lose sight of their objectives or just attend classes without participating in the classroom discussions. To attract more motivated and talented students in specific academic areas, the university will introduce a recommendation-based entrance examination for academic year 2016 for the first time since the 1947 academic year, when the school education law was enacted.

Starting this autumn, the university will also introduce the Massive Online Open Course (MOOC), a free and credit-less Internet service that has been widely used in the United States since 2012.

By providing classes by professors of the university in English and accepting assignments from online students, the university wants to attract talented students.

To play an active role in an international community, the University of Tokyo believes that students need to acquire communication and language skills and intercultural knowledge. With this in mind, the university launched in April the Freshers’ Leave Year (FLY) Program, which allows newly entered students with firm plans to take a year of leave of absence to study abroad or do other self-achieving activities. If selected, students can receive up to 500,000 yen (about $5,000) for supporting their activities.

The FLY program is aimed to encourage independent-minded students to experience different kinds of life.

Bringing in more foreign students will also enable local students to interact with other cultures. But overseas, “Todai,” as the University of Tokyo is nicknamed, doesn’t have the brand recognition it does in Japan.

Last year the school made an effort to increase the number of international students by launching Programs in English at Komaba (PEAK), an undergraduate course provided exclusively in English at the university’s Komaba campus in Tokyo's Meguro Ward. Twenty-seven foreign students entered the program.

Tadashi Uchino, who is in charge of the program, isn’t taking chances this year. Hoping that firsthand interviews by the university’s teachers would give favorable impressions, the university sent 13 professors to 15 countries in Asia, Europe, the United States and Oceania. They met with 79 high school students and gave them a Todai sales pitch.

“Overseas students with high scholastic ability and desire for learning are our prospective customers,” Uchino said. “It is part of our job to have them choose Todai.”

The university is taking another step to attract overseas students. Plans call for a “spring forward, fall start” system in the 2014 academic year at the earliest.

Fall enrollment, which is common in many universities outside Japan, would better suit the schedules of overseas students.

The system would also encourage Japanese students to study abroad, officials said.

Still, officials say they are not sure if the reform strategies will work.

For example, while many overseas universities give abundant scholarships to good foreign students, the University of Tokyo’s PEAK has only enough funds to support 10 students.

Officials are also worried that high schools may not recommend students that the university wants.

Other prestigious universities in Japan share the concerns of the University of Tokyo.

Waseda University, known for attracting unique students, has started discussing an entrance examination reform in earnest, saying recent students “do not have goals.”

The university envisions increasing the number of partner schools, in addition to existing affiliated ones, so it can scout for excellent students by providing classes for them.

It has been promoting a system to acquire students recommended by designated schools in China, South Korea and other countries.

Kyoto University announced in March a plan for “special selection” entrance examinations from the 2016 academic year enrollment. The method may differ by department, but the exam will be a recommendation-based or Admissions Office exam, based on comprehension and creative thinking abilities, academic ambitions and other factors.

The university plans to have each prospective student to submit his or her own detailed study plans.

“University entrance exams can change the way of learning among high school students," said Atsushi Kinami, a professor in the faculty of law in charge of an entrance exam reform. "The true aim of our reform is to raise high school students’ ambition to learn and connect it to in-depth learning at university.”

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The University of Tokyo, Japan’s top university, has become desperate for the brightest students, from home and abroad. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The University of Tokyo, Japan’s top university, has become desperate for the brightest students, from home and abroad. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • The University of Tokyo, Japan’s top university, has become desperate for the brightest students, from home and abroad. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
  • The Asahi Shimbun
  • The Asahi Shimbun

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