Semester shift to align universities globally means major overhaul

A call to shift enrolment from the current April to September, made by the prestigious University of Tokyo and supported by at least 30 other universities, has turned the spotlight on higher education internationalisation in Japan and reviving universities’ depleting revenue. But a changeover would also have an impact on broader recruitment practices.

Although the university first raised the idea of changing its semester dates last year, it was in an announcement in January that University of Tokyo President Junichi Hamada outlined a timetable for change, saying he “would aim to conclude the transition five years from now”.

Academic experts viewed the announcement as a bombshell in normally staid Japanese education policy, and an important step in a country where ushering in change can be an uphill struggle.

“Bringing international education practices to Japan is aimed to make universities internationally competitive. Japan’s isolation in a globalising world is becoming a problem,” said Masakazu Goto, senior researcher at the National Institute for Educational Policy Research in Tokyo.

Autumn enrolment, common in universities in the West, is catching on in Asia and other regions. A report released by Tokyo University in mid-January revealed that some 70% of 215 countries follow an academic year that starts in September or October.


Assimilation with international universities has paved the way for major overseas universities to attract top-notch researchers and students to keep their research and development at high levels, Japan’s leading daily Yomiuri Shimbun noted in an editorial recently.

The more than 30 public and private universities in Japan have lent their support to the dramatic shift in expectation of an increase in foreign students and researchers. A number of major universities have said they will set up working groups to examine how best to implement the switch.

However, others have pointed out that the proposed changes will affect traditional employment procedures based on university graduates starting work soon after graduation in April, which marks the business calendar year.

But Keidanren, Japan’s leading business conglomerate, has announced its support for autumn enrolment and has said it plans to discuss how recruitment schedules might be adjusted. Tokyo University said it would set up a consultative body in April that would include members of Keidanren.

Six-month gap

The ongoing debate is also focusing on effective utilisation of the six-month ‘gap term’ between spring graduation and university entrance examinations for Japanese high school students and the beginning of the new university term in September. At present students enrol in university within less than a month of finishing high school.

Koichi Ishiyama, who teaches journalism at Waseda University, contended that this time could be a vital learning period for graduates to polish their language skills and travel overseas for internships to boost their employment prospects in globalising Japanese companies, particularly as the proportion of Japanese undergraduates who study abroad is less than 3%.

“I am supportive of the change, which will pave the way for new university students to take up opportunities during the waiting period to work on personal advancement apart from studies.”

Ishiyama, who also teaches international business, pointed out that Japan needs more young entrepreneurs. “The long economic recession has made graduates prioritise secure jobs. There is a need to give them an opportunity to think otherwise and a gap term before university enrolment is an important way to do this,” he explained.

With the more profitable Japanese companies going global, graduates with international experience have an edge in the sluggish job market.

Private universities

However, some private universities are resisting the change and have cited the financial burden on households that already struggle to pay for university tuition.

Shinshu University in Tokyo argued that parents would have to continue to support their children financially during the six months after they graduate from high school and wait to start university. The national joblessness rate has climbed to 5% and the number of households with low annual incomes of under US$30,000 has risen.

University experts, however, have contended that the time has come to push ahead with difficult changes as a means of survival. More than 50% of Japanese school-leavers enter universities but most of the country’s 800 higher learning institutions are struggling with low enrolment.

A major concern for universities is how to boost enrolment at a time when the birth rate is low.

Foreign students

The number of foreign students studying in Japan is around 140,000 – 70% of them from China. Fees from foreign students are vital to the finances of Japanese universities. But the number dwindled last year following the huge March 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster.

International students comprise only a fraction of the student body. For example, only 1.9% of Tokyo University’s students are from overseas compared to 10% at Harvard University in the US.

A spokesperson for the higher education section of the Ministry of Education in Tokyo acknowledged the importance of reaching global standards if Japanese universities are to keep up with global competition.

But, she explained, changing enrolment dates is not the only way. “Supporting Japan’s international competence must include curriculum changes in schools and other steps that need further debate.”

Researcher Masakazu Goto argued that internationalisation in higher education should focus on promoting the English language to expand Japan-based research and thought internationally.

“The issue up to now has been the lack of an education [system] that can facilitate Japanese students to speak their mind in English. The internet is based on English proficiency and this is where Japanese education must raise its profile,” he said.