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Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2007

The graduate school fiasco

Amid the controversy over Japanese students' falling scholastic standards, the most serious concern stems from the poor abilities of graduate students. This problem arose from the mistaken policy, introduced in 1990, of expanding graduate-school education.

A case in point is economics. Before 1990, all new students in pre-doctorate economics courses aspired to become scholars. Those who enrolled in graduate schools tended to be mavericks who had given up finding nonacademic jobs. They had studied advanced economics on their own as undergraduates. As a result, the level of education for first-year graduate students was very high and all of them acted like scholars in their own rights. The level of their master's treatises was likewise high and some were printed by academic journals under peer review.

With the expansion of graduate-school education, graduate schools were required to expand their enrollment quotas — and fill them — even though master's or doctor's degrees do not guarantee good employment opportunities.

Students have advanced to graduate schools for several reasons:

Until several years ago, students had suffered from a long period of job scarcity. For those students unable to land desirable jobs, two-year pre-doctorate courses provided a temporary shelter.

It is relatively easy for students to enter graduate schools at A-class universities from undergraduate departments at B- or C-class universities. Grad school entrance exams are much easier to pass than the undergraduate entrance exams.

Furthermore, national universities are free to give entrance examinations for graduate schools on the dates they choose — not on the same day of a given year. Therefore, students can take examinations for different graduate schools in the same year.

A number of students who had enrolled in undergraduate programs such as engineering have chosen to enter graduate schools of economics because they thought economics looked more interesting.

Increasing enrollment in graduate schools of economics for any of these reasons is bound to reduce the average scholastic ability of new students. The resulting lower levels of education hurt students who enroll in graduate schools to become scholars.

Since Japanese universities give specialized education to undergraduates, students usually have little need to advance to graduate schools to brush up on practical knowledge. Understandably, companies thus are cool to hiring holders of master's degrees in economics.

The expansion of graduate-school education has been a fiasco. Graduate schools are no longer institutions for nurturing scholars, and the level of Japan's scientific and academic research has fallen.

Before the policy was implemented, graduate schools had no obligation to fill their enrollment quotas and admitted students based on absolute, rather than comparative, evaluation. As a result, graduate school enrollment was much lower than quotas allowed, and doctorate degree holders had little trouble finding employment as university teachers.

The education ministry has recently announced a policy of enhancing doctorate-course education even as they cut back on operational fund subsidies to national universities. As a result, teaching staff quotas at national universities have gradually decreased.

At private universities, the downtrend in admission applications continues amid the declining national birthrate, leading to less revenue from entrance-examination fees and making it more difficult to hire full-time teachers. Meanwhile, the supply of doctorate graduates has increased as demand for them has decreased.

Post-doctorate fellows hired by the Society for the Promotion of Science, government-backed large-scale research projects and private universities receive annual salaries of about ¥4 million for one to three years. The same is true for specially appointed assistant professors employed for government-backed, large-scale research projects. Many reach 35 without finding secure employment. Some are forced to look for unskilled jobs at public employment agencies.

Thus the education ministry's policy has turned cruel. Poor doctorate degree holders might have landed secure jobs at large companies if it had been more difficult to enroll in doctorate courses.

There are two solutions to the problem. First, incentives should be given to companies to hire doctorate degree holders over 30 years old. Toward that end, the Japanese-style apprentice system common at graduate schools of engineering should be discontinued; students should be allowed to make in-depth studies of their specialties. Doctorate degree holders should receive a decisively better education than master's or undergraduate degree holders.

Second, since the government policy of expanding graduate-school education was a mistake, the government should create many more academic jobs. In particular, quotas for university teachers should be expanded.

There is no problem, per se, with generous "competitive" funding of university research on a priority basis. But hiring doctorate degree holders as post-doctorate fellows or specially appointed assistant professors with limited terms of employment in connection with the funds does not facilitate research in a stable environment and makes it difficult to nurture young, capable scholars.

Expanding the quotas for academics is desirable from the viewpoint of normalizing Japan's higher education — in which the number of students per teacher is abnormally high compared to levels in North America and Europe.

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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