Reform of university entrance exam sparks debate

Japan could soon see a new university entrance system to replace the current, highly competitive exam, which is regarded as rigid and inflexible. There has been intense debate over how the new testing system – which is likely to be more rigorous and based on academic performance and thinking skills – should develop.

The issue is at the heart of an education reform campaign led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. According to Abe, Japan’s much-vaunted higher education system cannot meet the requirements of a rapidly globalising world and needs drastic changes to produce young people able to compete globally.

Japan, which once ranked at the top of international performance on tests in subjects such as mathematics and science, has been falling behind counterparts in other East Asian countries.

In 2011, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMMS, reported that Japan was trailing at sixth place in tests taken at age 13, behind Singapore and South Korea, which were listed in first and second place.

A similar trend is seen among Japanese universities, with other East Asian countries challenging Japan’s lead. Japan’s top institution, the University of Tokyo, is at 15th place globally in the latest Times Higher Education ranking.

A newly formed Education Rebuilding Implementation Council, comprising academic experts, is expected to unveil proposals next month on a new university entrance exam to replace the current competitive exam based on standardised scores.

Stringent assessments

According to reports, the likely focus of the council’s recommendations will be on stringent achievement assessment tests to be held several times annually for high school students, rather than the one ‘big bang’ high-stakes examination at the end of high school under the National Center Test for University Admissions, which was launched in 1990.

Ongoing discussions have also suggested a separate test and interview conducted at each university after individual exam scores are received. This will determine the student’s thinking skills, as well as enthusiasm and motivation.

According to Masashi Kudo, an official at the Ministry of Education, “the goal of the new achievement test is to raise the academic ability of students”.

Universities also accept students on the recommendation of high school principals, an entry system that is being increasingly followed as higher education institutions, especially two-year colleges, struggle to fill quotas and keep afloat financially.

In 2012, high school recommendations comprised almost 35% of university admissions, with just 55.7% admitted through the competitive entrance exam.

Another key change being considered is to raise English proficiency by possibly including TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exam results as a university entry requirement, in a bid to encourage globalisation, experts said.


Kazuo Maruyama, an expert at the Benesse Research Corporation, a leading private think-tank, explained that the new test would focus heavily on academic achievement.

“They will have to study harder to get better scores to enter good universities,” he told University World News.

However, he added, the continued focus on scores did not represent the major reform that is needed in Japan.

“Japanese higher education has traditionally been rooted in developing academics who are top researchers rather than becoming innovators in the workplace. The much-heralded changes in Japanese universities continue to smack of this conservative trend,” he said.

High school teachers have also expressed concerns, particularly over the idea of allowing multiple opportunities to take university entrance tests during high school.

Ryoichi Oikawa, head of the National Association of Upper Secondary School Principals, said: “Being able to take the university exam during second or third grades [of high school, or ages 16-17] ultimately means students will be studying only for the test.”

Crucial aspects of education, such as enjoying studying and promoting character development, would fall into second place.

Increased choices

Some students still believe the high-stakes end-of-high school examination is the best way to enter the most reputable universities.

High school third grader Nijie Ozaki (17) is studying hard to enter a university she feels will give her the best education to become an English tourist guide.

“I was able to enter a university through the recommendation system but I refused. I am studying hard for the National Center Test to get high scores and get into the university I want to,” she told University World News. Her parents are supportive and have enrolled her in a cram school to raise her chances of success.

Tsukasa Daizen, a professor at the Research Institute for Higher Education at Hiroshima University, explained that students like Ozaki are not common in Japan, with the majority of high school students unclear about their career goals when they apply for universities.

Against this backdrop, he said, students would focus entirely on passing a new achievement test and then have to take another test to gauge their thinking abilities, which was “a rather vague prospect”.

He pointed to a lack of qualified admissions teams in Japanese institutions. “Most universities are short staffed and do not have the experience or qualifications to handle a new entrance test that involves the difficult task of judging thinking standards, for example,” he said.