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Sunday, May 30, 2010

How can it get too late to learn?

Diplomas yield little reward for most older people who go to university in Japan, with their considerable endeavors barely rated by employers at all


Professor Ryusuke Yoneyama was in the middle of explaining to the members of his music-production class why Baroque-era violin bows, which resembled loosely strung archery bows, produced a weaker sound than their contemporary counterparts when he paused to ask a question.

News photo
Food for thought: This copy of French artist Auguste Rodin's famed 1902 sculpture, "The Thinker," sits pensively outside the entrance to Wakayama National University in Wakayama City. Nationwide, many are pondering why it is that in Iceland 40 percent of entering undergraduate students are aged 25 or older, and 23 percent in the United States — but only 2 percent in Japan. WINIFRED BIRD PHOTOS

"Has anyone here ever tried archery?" inquired 56-year-old Yoneyama, who is both a professor in the Faculty of Tourism at Wakayama National University and a professional classical oboist.

For a moment, a deathly silence hung over the small, nondescript classroom where 10 students sat around a couple of pushed-together desks. Six young women in heavy eye makeup and three young men in T-shirts and zippered sweatshirts fidgeted in their seats. Then the tenth student raised her hand.

"I have!" said Yoshiko Matsuzaki, an attractive, petite woman sporting a lavender suit-jacket with small black flowers embroidered on it, beige pumps and a chunky bob streaked with a few strands of white. "Just a little," she added with a sheepish smile.

Matsuzaki is a 57-year-old fourth-year student in the undergraduate tourism program, and it just so happens that she was married to a local archery champion for two decades. As the owner of an audio-equipment store and a classical concert enthusiast, she also knows a few things about Baroque music.

"Wow . . . " murmured her 20-year-old classmates.

In Iceland, where — according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — 40 percent of entering undergraduate students were aged 25 or older in 2005, Matsuzaki wouldn't be anything special.

In the United States, too, she would blend right in with the almost 24 percent of students the OECD identified as falling into that category.

In Japan, however, she is one of fewer than 2 percent of undergraduate students who bring their experience as adult members of society into its university classrooms.

Experts agree that adult learners should be flocking to Japan's universities. According to the Research Institute for Higher Education at Hiroshima University (RIHE), the number of 18-year-olds nationwide fell from 2,007,035 in 1990 to 1,214,389 in 2010 — meaning universities are scrambling to keep their classrooms full.

At the same time, a poor economy and relatively high unemployment rates mean more adults are looking for ways to improve their careers.

"The government and universities are all working to increase the number of older students. At private universities in particular, the number of young students is decreasing, so if they don't increase their intake of older students they are not going to be financially stable," said Ikuo Amano, an emeritus professor at the University of Tokyo who has authored more than 25 books on Japan's higher-education system and is a vocal proponent of educational reform.

The Executive Director for Admissions at Wakayama University, Tatemasa Hirata, put it more simply: "We really want them to come."

Nevertheless, the numbers remain persistently low. Explanations range from university policies geared to serve traditional full-time students, to social mores that define university students as young — to an employment system that often discriminates against older graduates with prior work experience. For many adults who might otherwise head back to school for a new start in life, the barriers simply prove too high.

For Matsuzaki, it literally took a brush with death to get back to school.

"In high school I was a tennis star, and I got sports scholarship offers from a number of universities," said Matsuzaki, who grew up in Niigata Prefecture. She didn't want to keep playing tennis, however, so she turned down the offers and instead moved to Tokyo and found a job at Isetan, a famous department store.

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Grad school: Students in an evening business class at a branch of Wakayama University in Osaka. Such satellite campuses, and classes held in the evenings and on weekends, make graduate studies more accessible for older people, many in full-time work. CHIHARU KAMIYA PHOTO

At age 21, however, she headed off to London to study English for two years, and by 24, after she returned, she was married. Over the next two decades she and her husband ran their audio- equipment business and raised one son, Hiroto.

Then, a few days before their 20th wedding anniversary, Matsuzaki's husband died of brain cancer.

"The whole world went black. I felt so sorry for myself," she recalled. However, she kept running the store and raising her son alone. Ten years later the other shoe dropped: A doctor told Matsuzaki she, too, might have cancer. Frantic, she went from doctor to doctor until she finally learned that the lump in her breast was benign (she subsequently discovered it was actually malignant and is undergoing treatment) .

"It was like I'd been reborn," she said. "At that time Hiroto was 18 and applying to colleges. I came across the tourism program at Wakayama University and I said to him, 'You know what, I'm going to try applying too.' He said to me, 'OK, let's do test prep together!' If it weren't for the cancer, I wouldn't have done it. I applied through a special process for older students, and I got in. I'm so glad I did."

Matsuzaki says that as the owner of a successful business (which she now runs with her son), her main reason for going back to school was to learn more about a subject that interested her, rather than to improve her career prospects.

According to a recent study by Mark Wright, an associate professor at Nanzan University in Nagoya, that is typical of adult learners in Japan.

Wright asked 514 adult students studying at 29 Japanese universities to divide a list of 126 factors into motivators and barriers to their participation in higher education, then rate the strength of each factor.

The most commonly chosen motivators were those related to intellectual or personal growth, with "My own intellectual curiosity" coming in first. Career improvement was rated as a relatively weak motivator, while factors related to the time and money required for an education were the most commonly identified barriers.

Married women face another set of barriers, because returning to school often means they are less able to fulfill their prescribed role as caretaker and homemaker. Michiko Ishikawa, now 64, said her husband had mixed feelings when she entered Tokyo-based Toyo Gakuen University at the age of 49. Ishikawa had attended a junior college after high school but said she wanted to complete a four-year degree and write a thesis.

"When my husband heard I'd been accepted, he applauded," she said. "But once I started studying, I couldn't do the housework like I had until then. When I was studying, he'd make a sort of sour face, as if he wished I was polishing the windows. But I thought, this is really interesting — it's much more fun to play in this wonderful world of ideas than to polish windows."

Ishikawa, who before returning to school had taught English at home, went on to complete a masters degree in English literature at Tokyo Kasei University and write a thesis on Kazuo Ishigoro, the U.K.-based award-winning author of 1989's "Remains of the Day," among many other novels.

With 29 percent of Japanese currently aged 25 to 34 having completed undergraduate or graduate school, and 54 percent having completed some form of post-secondary education, according to the OECD, Japan has one of the most highly educated populations in the world. Yet for decades, critics both domestic and international have been questioning the quality of higher education in Japan, and universities and government institutions have been struggling to achieve reform.

"The social purpose of higher education in Japan is selection," said Nanzan University's Professor Wright.

In fact, as Wright and other authorities explained, students spend most of their three years in high school preparing for the rigorous, fact-based examinations that university admission is centered on. Universities themselves are strictly ranked, and a student's entrance-exam scores determine the level of school he or she will be able to attend.

In turn, the name and the rank of the university a student attends, rather than a student's performance there, is widely said to be the main factor employers consider when hiring new graduates.

Satsuki Yamakawa, a 21-year-old senior in Wakayama University's Faculty of Education, described the impact this system has on students.

CONTINUED ON PAGE 2 >>


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