TOKYO – Hakubun Shimomura, Japan’s Minister of Education and Science, has been working to make the country’s universities more competitive globally since his appointment to the post in December.
In an interview, he discussed the government’s âAbenomicsâ policies, as well as the need to internationalize Japanese higher education, attract foreign professors, improve English skills and update the process. admission.
He also commented on his personal experiences of the Japanese university system in relation to his son, who has a learning disability. His son attends a British university, from which he hopes to graduate this year.
Q. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to revitalize the nation through the Abenomics. Does it relate to the initiatives of you and your panel?
A. They certainly are. To support economic growth, we need to stimulate technological innovation and create new industries in areas like medicine and healthcare, and not just in the conventional auto and home electronics industries. A good example of our efforts in this area is the 110 billion [$1.12 billion] we are engaged in iPS stem cell research led by nobel laureate Dr Shinya Yamanaka. [Induced pluripotent stem cells, referred to by Mr. Shimomura, are stem cells derived from ordinary body cells rather than embryos].
We must develop human capital to achieve industrial growth as envisioned in the âthird arrowâ of Abenomics. Our gross domestic product per capita has fallen from number 2 in the world to number 27 recently. As the workforce shrinks and the population ages, increasing productivity is pretty much the only route to higher economic growth.
Q. What is the main challenge for universities?
A. Higher education in Japan has not really been a place to nurture global talent. For a good illustration of this, take a look at where Japanese universities sit in the published rankings. Today, fewer Japanese universities are on these lists.
Strengthening universities would allow us to develop talents that better meet the needs of our industries. Individual universities may not be able to do this on their own financially, so government and universities should share the strategy and work together.
Q. What should they do to become more global?
A. We want Japanese universities to increase the number of international professors, increase the number of courses taught in English, and introduce standardized tests like Toefl as a way to improve English skills. We also want to double the flow of students coming to Japan and those leaving Japan for foreign institutions.
To this end, we are providing larger grants to universities that are serious about making change.
The Education Reconstruction Implementation Council said in a recent report that “the lag in the globalization of Japanese universities is reaching a critical state.” These are pretty strong words.
A. Japanese universities are like lone ivory towers. Their refrain has long been âfreedom of teaching and researchâ, but you suddenly realize that they have been unable to cope with today’s realities. Few are world-oriented and few are in tune with the needs of today’s society at home.
Q. What can be done more specifically to transform college education?
A. An important suggestion from the Council concerns the admission test. Currently, college admissions are all about giving students a one-time test – and that’s it. It is biased towards knowledge building and rote learning.
Basic knowledge is needed in the real world, but what is even more needed are diverse talents, leadership skills, and human empathy, as can be learned from extracurricular and volunteer activities in high school.
These are the types of abilities we should be looking for when preparing our young people for the globalized world.
Q. Can you tell us about your son and how he ended up in a UK university?
A. My son will be graduating from the University of the Arts in London this year with a degree in Fashion Design. He entered because it was a British university; he probably would not have succeeded if he had applied to a Japanese university.
To be admitted to a Japanese university, you need to achieve good results in different subjects. Even if you are starting out in art or music, you must pass the general subject tests and only after that they will assess your artistic abilities.
My son has difficulty reading, especially long texts, due to learning disabilities. In Great Britain, if you excel in three subjects of your choice in high school, you can enter the best schools. I got the impression that the UK system is more open to a wider range of people and talents. I would like the system here to be reorganized so that the possibilities are open to all children.
After all, considering where we want to go, it is less important for us to create 10,000 people with ordinary abilities than a few with superb talents.
Q. Your panel made many suggestions, including attracting more foreign experts. But recruiting highly paid international academics might not be suitable here. Are you sure the change will be acceptable, especially at publicly funded universities where attitudes might be more conservative?
A. What we will do is help institutions that are ready to adapt and change. The traditional approach was to farm grants according to the size of the university, thus respecting its existing position and stature in higher education.
I am aware that the idea of ââgiving an outside scholar a salary higher than that of the university president, for example, will not find a good resonance in general. Thus, we will provide funds where there is a will to change and adapt. We do not take the conventional âtreat everyone the sameâ approach.