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Saturday, March 3, 2012
Is Japan's enrollment season really a problem?
By AMY CHAVEZ
The University of Tokyo -or Todai as it is locally called — is considering changing its enrollment from spring to autumn to be more in sync with universities around the world, 70 percent of which are said to have enrollments in the fall.
The move is controversial, however, as "societal concerns" come into play.
As one Japanese friend said, "I have a strong attachment in April to the beautiful scenery and fullness of cherry blossoms at the start of the academic year."
And, it's not just the blushing cherry blossoms that pose a problem. Tulips are also a harbinger of the new school year in Japan. Short-changing Japan's national flower is bad enough. Do we really want to upset the entire bulb community as well? Is it possible, and morally correct, to manipulate the tulip planting season — perhaps even forcing them into green houses with temperature control to fool them like we've already done with tomatoes? Or should we just settle with autumn foliage as becoming the new symbol of the academic year?
Not only will nature be unbalanced by changing the university enrollment season, but the national "wa" may be in peril too. Spring, the traditional hiring season by Japanese companies, is when entire graduation classes start their new jobs. These dokyusei have important, life-long bonding roles in Japanese companies and society.
And if the enrollment season is changed, won't they have to change the entrance examination season too? (I've never understood the point of university entrance exams myself — shouldn't they be giving university exit exams instead?)
It seems like a lot of change just to align themselves with foreign universities. But there's more. Another reason Todai is considering the change is because they aim to increase enrollment of foreign students. Aligning the beginning of the school year with that of universities abroad would encourage more foreign students to come and study in Japan. Um, really?
I'd think factors such as curriculum, quality of professors, tuition fees and the propensity of being accepted would be more critical to determining where someone chooses to study. Students don't just arbitrarily choose Japan; most would have some previous interest in Japanese culture, language, or business to choose Japan. If, for example, they chose Japan because they want a job in Japan when they graduate, then there is no sense in changing the enrollment season which puts them out of sync with the hiring season.
It makes me wonder if anyone has asked the international students what they think of Japan's enrollment season. If they did, they just might find that most students say, "I want to start university with the cherry blossoms in full bloom!"
As "international students" they are probably keen on not just studying but also traveling. After all, you cannot study abroad without first traveling abroad. So my guess is that the few months between high school graduation and starting university wouldn't be a problem for these students. They'll either get a part-time job at home to save up some money before they leave, or they'll go travelling around Asia and arrive in Japan the morning classes start. Full moon parties in Thailand? Bring it on!
Having time off between high school and university is usually seen as a good thing, like having a "gap year," for travel or work experience. So by changing the enrollment season, you may be threatening such opportunities for these students.
Students aren't the only ones affected by the start of the school year; foreign teachers are too. Yet most are thrilled to get a job in Japan and do not consider it a "problem" to wait a few months to start a new job the way it might be for Japanese people (who are used to starting new jobs in spring). Most of us come from countries where people are hired as they are needed, not according to season. In addition, students can matriculate year-round, they transfer between universities to start new study programs, and they go back to university as adults, all things rarely done in Japan.
Which makes me wonder: Is the current enrollment season really a problem for perspective foreign students, or is it merely a perceived problem?
Furthermore, no one has mentioned which country most foreign students come from. Surely many come from Australia, a Pacific Rim nation with strong ties to Japan and where Japanese is offered as a foreign language option in elementary schools. In Australia, the university school year starts at end of February. So if you change the enrollment season to autumn in Japan, while you'd be fixing the problem for prospective students in some countries, you'd be creating a new problem for others.
Even in the United States, students can enter university any time of the year, so there is no guarantee that changing the enrollment season in Japan would be beneficial for American students wanting to study here.
A change to autumn matriculation would only help universities increase foreign enrollment by a small percentage overall. Todai hopes to increase its foreign student enrollment to 12 percent of the total. Should Japan put its own students in jeopardy for this small percentage? Japanese universities should only change their enrollment season if it is beneficial to Japanese students as well.
Even better, why limit matriculation to one season? The obvious solution is to offer two enrollment seasons. With more options, students can decide which season is best for them and choose whether they want to start school with the cherry blossoms or the autumn foliage. Both have their pros and cons.
As Todai has said, however, it will implement any changes "within five years." Nice and slow, the Japanese way.