terça-feira, 20 de outubro de 2015

Japan’s students require less mediocrity

Japan has a fair claim to being the world’s oldest nation. Today, youth is its scarcest and most precious asset. This decade the number of people living in Japan has fallen by about 800,000, and the number of 18-year-olds is falling faster still. If the country is to prosper as its population shrinks, it needs its dwindling band of young people to punch above their weight.

Hence the alarm felt in Japan last month when the country’s premier seat of learning dropped 20 places in a widely followed ranking of the world’s leading universities. The University of Tokyo, previously regarded as peerless among Asian colleges, now ranks below rivals in Singapore and China.

Thirty years ago, Japanese students who graduated from university would (if they were male, at least) amble into a corporate job they would typically keep for a lifetime. The important thing was to secure a degree certificate. As for an education — well, employers could be counted on to take care of that.

Most recruiters did not care if the curriculum contained a hefty dollop of banality, since that saved them the trouble of having to erase what had already been learnt when their graduates arrived to be drilled in the doctrines of corporate life.

An unfortunate legacy of that era is a university system that, in my view, expects too little of its undergraduates. It often declares students successful if they listen and give the right answer, when they should be challenged to think critically. More than half Japanese university students study less than five hours a week. Many eschew classes that demand serious reading and homework, preferring raku-tan or classes that will earn them “easy credit”.

Instead of coming to campus and learning, some spend their time at cram schools teaching their younger compatriots who need to pass competitive exams to enter university. Others find work waiting tables. Or they dedicate themselves to competitive sports, music or simply having fun — a part of university life everywhere, of course, but one Japanese students relish more than many.

Change is difficult. Ten years ago, I was among a group of professors at Keio University who created our all-English programme. Our first decision was to ban absences for attending recruitment seminars — which companies regularly plan without apparent regard to class hours. But we had to back down. Our students complained that they were the 30 undergraduates in Japan who were in effect barred from getting a job.

Next year we start another programme in which students will mingle more with those who have studied elsewhere. Graduates who understand that universities are first and foremost a place of research and learning will challenge the status quo.

In the late 19th century, Japanese universities imported western ways of education. The young people they taught were the ones whose abilities and ideas allowed Japan to burst on to the world economic stage. The university system we inherited from the last century performs a different function entirely.

It is attuned to corporate Japan, a mighty industrial force that needed workers it could mould to fit specialised roles. But that economic model is past. This is again a time of ideas — and Japan needs young people capable of supplying them.

Sahoko Kaji is a professor of economics at Keio University