The University of Tokyo, known by the shortened form of Todai in Japanese, plans to switch its academic year from the standard April entrance/March graduation format to the fall entrance/late spring or early summer graduation timetable that is the norm in the West.
Todai officials realized that accepting the dominant Western pattern was essential for it to remain competitive. In the “old days,” universities operated solely in their domestic market.
To be number one at home was sufficient. As the educational market has internationalized, universities have started to compete globally for students and faculty. They also feel that they must offer their customers (otherwise known as students) easy opportunities to study abroad. Therefore, institutions such as Todai feel that they must adopt the fall entrance calendar.
Other colleges, especially the most prestigious ones, are considering following in Todai’s footsteps.
Unfortunately, there are very convincing arguments to oppose this reform. Japanese high school students finish their studies in winter. What will they do between graduation and entering university?
The lucky ones will enjoy a long holiday and foreign travel funded by their wealthy parents. But others will have few options besides getting a low-paid, boring part-time (arbeito) job at the convenience store. How will institutions on the old calendar work with ones on the new one (from the timing of conferences, the hiring of new faculty, to the organization of sports competitions)? Upon graduating from university, will they be able to find jobs if most Japanese universities, businesses and government offices continue to run a recruiting system based on starting work in the spring?
Some employers may decide to offer two separate recruiting sessions, but this would be a major hassle. Even in the highly decentralized United States, most corporations have an annual hiring program tailored to a nationally uniform school year (i.e., making offers in the spring and starting work in the late summer or early fall).
The plan by some universities to alter their academic calendar is a welcome sign of internationalization. But it’s reminiscent of the incomplete efforts at modernization of the last decade of the Edo Shogunate. What made the Meiji reforms so successful was that they thoroughly restructured the entire state and society, whereas in most of Asia the transformation of old institutions was partial and incomplete.
The more logical route to follow is that of the Meiji Reformation, i.e., a thorough reform that is internally consistent. Or, to continue the driving analogy, to emulate Sweden, which at dawn on Sept. 3, 1967, switched from driving on the left side of the road to the right side everywhere.
In this case, the most coherent policy is to move the entire education sector, from kindergarten to universities, to a fall entrance program. Governments and businesses would then obviously adjust their recruitment schedules. The transition year could entail lengthening the first term of the last year of school (be it primary school, junior or senior high school, or college and graduate programs) so that seniors would start as usual in the spring but graduate, say, in early August, and then go on to further education or the labor market in September.
The transition year would be a little chaotic, but with a slightly longer school day, fewer holidays and cutting marginal materials from the curriculum, it would not dramatically affect the quality of education. Numerous individuals would complain, some of them legitimately. But in the end, a “big bang” approach is better than an incomplete transformation that would require constant tinkering for years--or perhaps decades--while inconveniencing many students, parents and employers.
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Robert Dujarric is director at Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, Temple University, Japan Campus, Tokyo.
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