03 April 2009

Japan must continue reforms in tertiary education, says OECD

Some academics got together by the OECD were given the 'cook's tour' of HE in Japan and claim to have got enough data and insights to put together a report. The report is promoted with the following headline: "Japan must continue reforms in tertiary education, says OECD".

As if anyone ever argued for whole systems to discontinue reforms once the reforms are set in motion, no matter how poorly planned and executed they might be (instead, the norm seems to be go for more reform until overreach is reached--and often that sort of overreach is reform suicide).

The OECD makes summaries and full reports available. To read about what the OECD thinks of HE in Japan, you can start here:


Some exceprts:

>>Key recommendations include:<<

Let's look at each key recommendation, which are striking for their vagueness.

1. >>The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology should adopt a more strategic approach to planning and leave detailed operational plans to the institutions.<<

What if all strategy is local? What does the OECD suggest as strategic? Perhaps hitting national targets and meeting emerging 'global standards'. But as I've pointed out many times before, the reforms of the past two decades seem empty because basically those who control the purse strings get control of management. So long as the national government and its ministries control the money, they will want to exercise control over institutions.

2. >>Tertiary institutions should take better advantage of their new autonomy, for example through new approaches to academic career tracks and internal resource allocation.<<

So far this seems to have translated into limiting tenure to full professors (at least in theory, still largely untested on Japanese associate and assistant professors) and filling up personnel requirements with the hiring of more and more part-time teachers and temporary, contractual research personnel.

3. >>Resource allocation in both national and public universities should continue to shift from inputs to performance.<<

What if performance is evaluated as the abilities to spend money got from the national government and to request successfully more money to spend? And most of this waste is linked to a science and technology research establishment.

4. >>Universities should have greater flexibility to set tuition fees.<<

National and public universities (or quasi-national and quasi-public, since the passing of legislation since 2004-5) are still forced to keep fees lower than private ones, but that is because they receive the bulk of government money, much of it for exactly that purpose--to keep university education affordable.

So far 'flexibility' has meant these universities have continued to raise their fees--even as the economy has been deflationary, education and medical fees continue to rise. However, national and public universities and colleges continue to be a much better deal, with fees almost on average half of private ones.

The issue that is eating at the national universities is the unfairness inherent to the set, subsidized tuition fees. That is, engineering and medical students, for example, pay the same as humanities and social science majors. That is a great deal for them, considering how few resources most institutions spend on humanities and social science majors. So in effect mass access to public education is being used to fund a social elite's education. This is especially true of the medical profession here, where the sons of doctors tend to form the next generation of doctors.

5. >>Student loans should be payable after graduation, with payments varying according to income.<<

They must have been running out of recommendations at this point. Japanese families tend to borrow less for university educations. They are used to paying out large lump sums for the social rites of passage (senior high education, university education, marriage, re-location to start a full-time job). It's true the bad economy of the past 15 years has affected upper working class families and their ability to tap savings to pay for such things.

6. >>Japan should organise a broad consultative process to review the possibility of voluntary consolidation among public sector institutions.<<

Right, since the only way the last wave of consolidation worked was the government dictating it. The biggest limit to further consolidation is geographic practicality. Instead of voluntary consolidation among public sector institutions (except perhaps in some urban areas where they are close to each other), the only way consolidation is going to be practical is to mix institutions regardless of their original charter. That is, for example, a struggling national college or faculty might be consolidated with a public institution. Or a private university that provides technical or vocational programs might be fitted into a science faculty at a national university. Or national, public and private universities might cooperate to provide more courses and programs without expanding costs.

The Japan full report can be found at this address:


A Japanese language article about the report can be found here:


A country background report on Japan is available here:


A note of warning about using OECD online resources and reports. The OECD's many publications online are not very well organized for easy indexing or search. Also, their huge PDFs, if they load into your browser can really bog your computer down. So be careful; it's better to attempt them as downloads and then open them outside your usual browser in a PDF reading program, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If nothing else, the OECD is WORDY. A summary report of highlights typically comes in at 100 pages with lots of graphics. Be careful and good luck.

OECD Questions HE Rankings

Global tables of universities are all the rage, and we have featured some of the more popular ones (such as THES, ARWU ) here at Japan HEO Blog, while noting how they seem to be slanted towards Anglophone countries, especially the US and UK. Recently the OECD has been critical of such rankings--criticizing their arbitrary and superficial aspects but especially warning against the weight given to and the use people put to the rankings.

What the OECD is really moving towards, though, is placing the organization as a leader in global evaluation and accreditation of higher education worldwide. In which case, as is so often the case with elite organizations run by and for elites, the issue will still be: who evaluates the evaluators and their methods?

The OECD's emphasis on 'learning outcomes' appeals strongly to common sense--to anyone who has experienced higher education as a student, a researcher, a teacher or an administrator. However, translating such concepts across so many individual country's and regional blocs and their higher education systems is going to be a lot easier to conceive than to achieve. So the OECD has set for itself a very ambitious learning outcome indeed.

Here is an OECD reading list, with links and some indicative excerpts.


>>The OECD Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (AHELO) study aims at determining whether it is possible to make meaningful statements about the education provided in universities in different countries, taking into account different “strands” of competence: skill in a chosen discipline, and generic skills such as critical thinking or the ability to apply knowledge practically. If successful, AHELO will provide institutions with analysis to help them improve their own performance, and will provide data that will help students assess the suitability of the institution for their own needs.<<


>>The OECD Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (AHELO) is a ground-breaking initiative to assess learning outcomes on an international scale by creating measures that would be valid for all cultures and languages. Between ten and thirty-thousand higher education students in over ten different countries will take part in a feasibility study to determine the bounds of this ambitious project, with an eye to the possible creation of a full-scale AHELO upon its completion.<<


>>The factors affecting higher education are woven so tightly together that they must first be teased apart before an accurate assessment can be made. The AHELO feasibility study thus explores four complementary strands....Generic Skills Strand....Discipline-specific Strands in Engineering and Economics....Learning in context....The Value-Added Strand....<<

Specialized, social, semantic search

The Japan HEO Blog is well-served for search. First, there is the Blogger search tool at the very top. And then there is a sponsored search box from Google, and a specialized Google search box further down the page.

However, I also created a specialized, social and semantic search tool using Eurekster. This is to help users of the Japan HEO Blog to do searches that are related to the topics covered at this blog. Please consider adding this search tool to your own Japan-related or HE-related sites.

You can see what the search tool/widget looks like on the left side of this blog's front page.

You can also use the search engine at the page below:


You can grab the widget as code at this page below:


To find other already-created swickis, search this directory:


Or try creating your own Web 2.0-ready search tool:


30 March 2009

Can classes and programs taught in English make Japanese universities globally competitive?

Can classes and programs taught in English make Japanese universities globally competitive?

Without better language planning at most universities and colleges, the strategy is doubtful. It is perhaps something that works best well away from regular institutions and programs, in relative isolation from Japan's typical higher education.

However, Japan's large higher education system may have more to offer to Asian students than American or British institutions, especially for those seeking education and training in Japanese language and in science, technology and engineering (and as more and more high school leavers are avoiding science in higher education, many institutions and programs desire international enrollments).

This perspectives article at Mainichi online (an English translation of a Mainichi Shimbun piece) tells of universities and programs in Japan that teach classes and even entire programs in English in an effort to keep up with globalization, internationalization and competition from Anglophone net education exporters, such as the US and UK.



>>[C]ompared to dominant universities in the United States, Britain and Australia that have strategically entered Asia, those in Japan are already finding themselves getting off to a late start. As long as Japan is caught up in a pattern in which internationalization and Americanization have the same meaning, we will see no outlets for Japan's reforms.<<

The original Japanese article can be found here:


Back to top

Back to top
Click on logo to go back to top page.