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Monday, April 9, 2007

Redundant higher education

In the 1990s, the education ministry announced a policy of making graduate schools the center of education and research at what had traditionally been undergraduate universities. At about the same time, restrictions on a liberal arts education for undergraduates were relaxed, allowing even freshmen students to take courses in specialized subjects.

Yet it seems to me that allowing specialized study for four years at the undergraduate level and then establishing programs of more of the same in graduate school are redundant.

Many scholars are likely to believe that if graduate schools must expand to attract more students, universities should give undergraduates a more advanced liberal arts education that's distinguishable from specialized study.

So what has happened as a result of prioritizing graduate schools?

In short, the policy has led to the "popularization" of graduate schools. Until the policy was implemented, only those who aspired to become scholars advanced to graduate courses in the humanities. Since those with master-of-arts degrees in humanities had limited employment opportunities at private companies, and government agencies did not value master's degrees in law or economics, almost all who joined graduate schools sought to advance to doctorate-level courses.

The enrollment quota for doctorate courses was set at half that of master's-level graduate courses. And to enable all master's degree holders to advance to doctorate courses, the actual enrollment in master's-level courses was limited to less than half the prescribed quota.

As a consequence, graduate students had strong motivation to study and even new students took turns reading and discussing advanced textbooks. As a first-year grad student, I joined fellow students in reading and discussing Paul A. Samuelson's "Foundations of Economic Analysis." I read high-level texts on statistics alone or with other students.

However, the popularization of graduate schools forces us teachers to teach basics in macroeconomics, microeconomics and econometrics to new students. The decline in the quality of graduate education is shocking. The enrollment quota in master's courses has sharply increased, and it has become mandatory to fill the quota. The quota cannot be filled without second-chance examinations every February.

It is easy for students to pass entrance examinations for a graduate school in economics. Undergraduates who have not taken an economics course before can join such graduate schools if they spend several months studying the basics in economics before the entrance exam. Science and technology students who score high in mathematics and English can also enroll easily. Because there are many such students, teachers are forced to teach basics in macroeconomics and microeconomics at the graduate level.

The popularization of graduate schools has had some positive effects on society, specifically increasing the number of master's degree holders in economics and creating jobs for economists outside academia. But the trend has been a great nuisance to aspiring scholars, who have already mastered the ABCs of macroeconomics and microeconomics and hope to concentrate on high-level texts. Getting by with easy classes is unbearable for them. The popularization of graduate schools has thus impeded efforts to nurture high-level researchers and scholars.

The education ministry later announced a policy of establishing graduate schools to train professionals in certain fields. Under the plan, universities with a law faculty were required to establish a graduate-level law school with a view toward eventually making only law-school graduates eligible to take national bar exams. At the same time, the number of successful applicants in the bar exams expanded fivefold. The ministry also approved the establishment of other graduate schools for professionals -- business, public policy (to train future bureaucrats) and accounting.

The reforms are based on a U.S. model. But to reform graduate education only is to change things for the worse; there must be regard for "institutional complementarity." Reform of primary and secondary education, undergraduate education, graduate education and the system for accepting graduates should be implemented in an integrated and consistent manner.

At U.S. colleges and universities, many first- and second-year undergraduate students receive a basic education equivalent to the Japanese high school level. Eighteen-year-old freshmen students may take a wide variety of courses -- for example, mathematics and jazz music -- to try to determine their aptitudes. U.S. university students study very hard, like Japanese high-school students. Sometimes a math major who has failed to keep pace with advanced courses changes his or her major to biology or economics.

U.S. graduate schools provide education for future professionals. Medical schools and law schools, for example, train would-be medical doctors and lawyers. There are no undergraduate faculties for medicine or law.

The Japanese government has implemented the policy of expanding graduate schools and establishing graduate schools for training professionals, but in ignoring the basic differences in undergraduate education between that in Japan and the U.S., it has done more harm than good.

The policy of expanding graduate schools must be accompanied by a policy of promoting undergraduate education in the liberal arts and sciences that lets students study a wide range of subjects for general knowledge. Otherwise, the knowledge level among young Japanese could fall to one of the worst in the world.

Takamitsu Sawa is a professor at Ritsumeikan University's Graduate School of Policy Science and a specially appointed professor at Kyoto University's Institute of Economic Research.

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