Universities debate barriers to internationalisation

An effort to internationalise universities often conflicts with domestic systems, and this is currently being seen at Japanese universities.

To internationalise the University of Tokyo, a shift of the academic calendar from April to autumn (September or October) was suggested by an internal panel in May 2012. This shift is to align the academic calendar to the world standard.

Although the proposal is still under discussion, major Japanese universities and the Japanese government, as well as industry, have started to discuss issues and obstacles around implementation.

While the suggestion might become a symbol of reform for the internationalisation of Japanese higher education, it has highlighted many conflicts with traditional and domestic systems. Shifting the academic calendar could cause problems for the University of Tokyo and other Japanese universities.

Reasons and concepts

The University of Tokyo’s internal panel suggested that the university should start its academic calendar in September or October within five years, in order to accelerate the internationalisation of higher education.

According to the report, 70% of countries in the world start higher education academic years in either September or October – including Western countries and also China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan – whereas most Japanese universities start in April. Some Japanese universities already admit students in the autumn, but this is not the norm.

It is argued that the alignment of the academic calendar with the world standard will help promote international exchanges of students and scholars and increase research collaboration at the university level.

With the new academic calendar, students could participate in study-abroad programmes for a semester or a year without conflicting with course schedules or delaying graduation. Professors and researchers could face fewer constraints regarding teaching or administrative responsibilities when they conduct research or teach abroad as visiting scholars.

Shifting the academic year also seems to be an effective use of the summer break. The current academic calendar prevents students from fully engaging in other activities during summer – including exchange programmes, volunteer positions and internships, especially for students hoping to travel abroad.

In addition, shifting the academic calendar introduces the potential for a ‘gap term’ (six-month break) between high school graduation and university entrance. The benefit of the gap term for students is the opportunity to engage in activities that broaden their perspectives and stimulate their interest through volunteering, studying abroad and other beneficial uses of their time.

Obstacles and challenges

Despite the potential merits of shifting the academic year, several challenges for the actual implementation of the change have been raised. These seem to be caused by the divergence between national and international systems.

For example, a revised university academic year does not match the schedule of other areas of Japanese society. The Japanese traditional academic calendar, from the pre-kindergarten to tertiary levels, starts in April and ends in March.

Moreover, the government and private sector in Japan start their fiscal year in April and hire a majority of new employees once a year, in April. Also, major certification exams – such as public servant, doctor, nurse and lawyer exams – assume that takers will start working in April.

Many Japanese people prefer the current cycle, with no downtime between high school and college graduation before they start working. Furthermore, although not relevant for non-Japanese people, beginning the school year in the spring coincides with the annual cherry blossom season and is culturally significant among the Japanese. Another concern is that shifting the academic calendar at just a few universities will complicate the situation further.

Unlike the University of Tokyo and some other institutions that aim for international competitiveness, most Japanese universities and colleges serve domestic students and, therefore, have no incentive to shift their academic calendar.

Also, among the major universities considering this shift there is some disagreement about the method of implementation, with different universities coming up with different solutions.

If only a few universities shift their academic calendar, it could be confusing and problematic for students, the government, companies and universities. For students who chose to attend universities in Japan that begin in September, their status during the gap term between high school graduation and university entrance would be unclear.

The hiring schedule of university graduates at traditional Japanese companies will need to become more flexible than the current rigid system, which hires employees only in April, to accommodate varying university graduation dates; otherwise, some students might be disadvantaged.

Between government and universities, the difference in the fiscal year and the academic year at some universities might cause problems of budgeting and financial allocation.

Alternatives and other procedures

The University of Tokyo’s report, the president of the university and public opinion seem to agree that higher education internationalisation cannot be achieved solely by shifting the academic year. Rather, shifting the academic calendar should be discussed simultaneously with other types of reform.

Thus, to promote study abroad among Japanese domestic students, it has been suggested that universities could emphasise and improve their internal support systems – such as allowing study-abroad transfer credit, promoting smooth transitions through language preparation and pre- and post-study orientations, and providing scholarship opportunities.

However, to attract international scholars and students to Japan, the enhancement of educational quality and finding ways to overcome language barriers might be more critical than shifting the academic calendar.

While changing the academic calendar might play a symbolic role in propelling overarching university reform, not addressing all the other potential obstacles will not help Japanese universities to build up international competitiveness.

Regardless of whether shifting the academic year is implemented or not, the University of Tokyo and other Japanese universities, as well as Japanese society, seriously need to assess the current situation and strategically plan the future direction of Japanese higher education.

* Yukiko Shimmi is a graduate research assistant at the Center for International Higher Education (CIHE), Boston College, in the US. E-mail: yshimmi@gmail.com. This is an edited version of the article, “Should Japanese Universities Shift the Academic Calendar?”, published in the current edition of the CIHE’s International Higher Education.