Japan Gets Schooled

Why the Country's Universities Are Failing

A job seeker looks at his smartphone during a job fair held for fresh graduates in Tokyo, March 8, 2015. Yuya Shino / Reuters

Dismay rippled through Japanese society over the summer after the venerated University of Tokyo lost its number one ranking, falling to number seven, in the Asia university rankings published by the Times Higher Education of London.

The University of Tokyo (known as Todai in Japan) occupies a cultural space akin to Harvard, Princeton, and Yale combined in the United States. It is the launching pad for those who go on to run the country’s elite institutions. After the rankings slip, many Japanese felt that the country itself—not just its university—had taken a tumble.

Todai’s defrocking is emblematic of a broader problem. Japan’s educational system is failing to keep pace with changes taking place in Japan and in the rest of the world. Its drop in the rankings was due to funding cuts, poor research output, and an insufficiently global “outlook.” In 2013, Japan spent 1.6 percent of its GDP on tertiary education, compared to 2.4 percent in South Korea and 2.6 in the United States, according to the OECD. Optimized for an earlier industrial age, anachronistic educational institutions are struggling to adapt to a globally competitive marketplace for students, faculty, funding, and jobs.

No wonder that in interviews, educators and students use language frighteningly similar to that which a prisoner might use to describe his or her own predicament: “trapped,” “suffocating,” “stuck,” and “wanting to escape or sneak out.” Hardly the “bright college years with pleasures rife,” as the Yale song goes.

Getting education right has to take top priority. First, along with the family unit, a country’s schools hold the special responsibility of developing the minds and values of its youth. Since a majority of Japanese adults attend college (60 percent of 25-34-year-olds have completed tertiary education, the second highest level in the OECD after Korea), the education system has enormous potential to be a positive force for dynamism.

Second, quality education is essential for safeguarding Japan’s role in the world and for fostering a more dynamic

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