Changing Japanese Society and the Challenges for Higher Education
Higher education in Japan started its history one-hundred and thirty years ago with the establishment of the University of Tokyo. The University was both the symbol of modernization and one of its driving forces. With the subsequent economic development, higher education expanded its size. Especially in the postwar periods, enrollment in higher education expanded rapidly. Now almost 40-percent of the youths advance to four-year university and another 30 percent to other types of post-secondary institutions. Japan passed through the mass-participation stage, and is now entering the stage of universalization. The rapid expansion in size, however, left many structural problems. In the 1990's, Japan's society faced a new challenge of Knowledge Society in the context of Globalization. Thus, Japan's higher education has to address some of the structural problems on the one hand, and the meet the needs arising from the changes in the economy and society. Subsequently, Japanese government proposed a series of reforms in higher education. Many of the reforms, however, critically depend on how individual institutions will change.
It is in this context that we are striving for changes in the University of Tokyo. The university is the largest among national institutions of higher education in Japan, and has a very large and complex organization. Initiating any change therefore will be a major challenge. There are three major areas for reform. First is management, including institutional governance and finance. The present government initiative calls for more independent status of national universities and greater power given to the president. Although it is the direction generally deemed necessary, the government plan in details raises various questions. The second area is research. Partly due to the large size, the University of Tokyo ranks second among the leading universities in the world with respect to the total number of articles published in major academic journals. However, it does not imply that we are fully realizing our potential. Among others, means have been taken to strengthen the relation with the industry and to enhance international networks. Third, we regard education, especially at the undergraduate level, as one of the most significant missions. Yet, bringing up the quality of instruction is not an easy task in a research-centered university. The university has started this year student evaluation in every class. Also, it is investigating more effective curriculum. More efforts will be necessary.
Beyond these, I think that the most basic question should be the role of university in the society in the Asian context. Asian economies are now making rapid progress. Our university has surely made significant contributions to it. And the government is now demanding even greater contribution by pushing forward the advancement of natural sciences and technology to lead the world. But is it all that we are concerned with? Is it not important to set such needs in the perspective of culture and spiritual life of human beings? I will be happy if I am allowed to have sincere exchanges on this point with my colleagues in China.
(China.org.cn, July 29, 2002)