Member Stefan Sacré explains what a stint as an engineering fellow at the University of Tokyo taught him about Japan’s education system and its future.
The university environment was quite different from Germany, especially in how the focus was on applied research in Japan. I found it very refreshing. In Germany, there was a lot of value placed on theoretical works.
I also felt that the students had their hardest day passing the entrance exam and it was basically party time until graduation. This was quite a surprise. In Germany, it is completely the opposite. The dropout rates are 70 percent, but the thinking behind it is that everybody has the chance to enter, but it’s up to you whether you finish.
I remember about a week before the exams [at Tokyo University], there was a kind of wake-up call. The students made a plan that looked like a military maneuver. They brought sleeping bags and [food] to the university and locked themselves in to study for the exams.
The experience showed me what type of thing is valued in Japan. The input is highly valued but the result not so much. I wonder if this feature of favoring hard work is now starting to hurt society.
The type of learning here is very fact-based and encyclopedic…but these days we have so much knowledge at our fingertips with the Internet. The more crucial question is what do we do with that?
I attended other classes to see how they were and, frankly, I thought they were a little boring. I tried to introduce a higher level of engagement, but the students’ reaction was the same. It was difficult to have discussions, for example. I even had some feedback that my style would make the students feel uneasy.
I would probably say that the broader level of education in Japan is higher, with more people going to university. I heard many times from companies that they want good raw material who are not specialized in anything. I realized that the role of the university is to provide a good average and the rest is with the companies.
We will see some universities go bankrupt in the next few years because they just won’t have the students. I think this dying process will be very slow with lots of suffering. The government is in a weak position because it has this huge legacy system and it’s very difficult to change course.
However, there are some innovative approaches that are quite disruptive like [graduate business school] Globis University, which is not following the standard pattern of universities. For example, all their teachers are practitioners. It’s about how to apply concepts and ideas in a new context, and this attracts a certain type of student. This is a place where I can contribute a little bit when I start teaching.
I think Japan has to pick its competitors when attracting foreign students. If it wants to compete with Harvard or MIT, this would be very difficult. If the top 5 percent of Indian students go to America, for example, then maybe Japan can target the next batch. You have to adjust your expectations a bit.
Image: Kayo Yamawaki