The Devil is in the Details

The Wall Street Journal wrote this week, Japan Rethinks Higher Education in Skills Push, Aug. 2, 2015 about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s funding proposal for Japanese universities, noting that liberal arts would be pushed back in favor of business or vocational programs. The prime minister asked that the 86 nationally-funded universities submit restructuring proposals that either focused on achieving global leadership in scientific research or on vocational training. His goal is to increase Japan’s innovation through research and its competitiveness through more specific coursework to improve student social and organizational skills.

Part of the problem, it appears, is that Japan’s universities rely on large, lecture-based classes. A 2012 survey cited in the article indicated that Japanese college students spend less than two hours per week studying outside of class. Those universities focusing on job training are including business leaders in their curriculum planning, a role previously limited to faculty. Mr. Abe’s proposal is expected to incentivize institutions since they currently receive 70 percent of their funding from the government and the number of college students is expected to decrease 50 percent by 2050. He would like 10 Japanese universities to make the global top 100 ranking. Currently, two are ranked in the top 10.

I am puzzled by Abe’s binary proposal that institutions should either focus on research related to science/business or vocational training. The need for graduates with increased social and organizational skills could be resolved with smaller class sizes, more team assignments and fewer lectures. Liberal arts and humanities graduates have historically flourished in business in the United States with critical- thinking skills developed more broadly than focusing on a prescriptive curriculum. Perhaps the real reason driving his proposal is the projected 50 percent reduction of college students over the next 35 years and he wants to ensure the preservation and/or creation of 10 strong research universities, with the remaining colleges and universities focusing on meeting business needs.

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