Universities impose piecemeal measures after shutdown
“The coronavirus turned into a major issue after Prime Minister Abe made his decision. We are all in the planning stage on how to respond,” said Professor Akihiro Ogura, vice president of Saga University, a national university.
“The big challenge is the upcoming new April academic year when students expect to start lectures. Students are expecting to come to classes, but we are still at the planning stage to deal with the situation and hoping for the best,” explained Ogura.
Japanese universities are currently on holiday as the academic year has ended. Without concrete instructions from the ministry of education, most universities have responded by taking piecemeal measures to stop the spread of the infection such as cancelling graduation ceremonies, extra-curricular student projects and student exchange programmes with affected countries.
Abe is facing strong public criticism for delaying the announcement and playing down the rapidly spreading global infection due to political concerns – as Chinese leader Xi Jinping was scheduled to visit Japan in April. This week he cancelled the much-anticipated state visit due to the coronavirus situation in both countries.
Half a dozen deaths and some 347 cases have been reported in Japan as of 5 March and an additional 700 cases and 6 deaths on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Yokohama harbour. Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido is the worst affected.
However, with Japan limiting coronavirus testing at 900 patients a day, the number is still low compared to countries like China with 80,500 cases, South Korea with 6,600, or over 3,500 cases in Italy and Iran respectively.
Limiting entry to Japan for Chinese and South Korean nationals from affected provinces only began this week after the United States took a similar stand. The ministry of justice announced on 6 March that anyone travelling from Hubei and Zhejiang provinces in China, or from around nine prefectures in South Korea and several areas in Iran would be denied entry to Japan.
The lack of a uniform response, according to academics, illustrates the bureaucratic hold on Japanese education. Students from China and South Korea are the largest groups among foreign students at Japanese universities.
Policies on how to deal with their return to campuses are being left to the universities, with the government only instructing that “flexibility” is important. No financial compensation for universities to deal with the crisis has been announced.
Dealing with foreign students from China, Korea
Most universities are accepting their Chinese and South Korean students back with a request to them to self-isolate for 14 days. For example, Ritsumeikan University, with more than 1,400 Chinese students, is also monitoring student health and will refund the entrance exam fee for those applicants who cannot take the exam because of the infection. Its exchanges to China have been cancelled.
Akita International University postponed both graduation and entrance exams for new students to avoid the spread of the infection, which is threatening one of the institution’s main attractions – its student exchange programmes.
The other major impact of the virus is the cancellation of international conferences and exchange programmes for academics, which they predict will continue for a while. Training programmes conducted in China by Japanese universities have been cancelled.
Doshisha University in Kyoto and Tokyo University of Science have suspended their programmes in China.
Higher education institutions are bracing for economic losses as visas for new students from the affected countries are not being issued. Chinese students, at almost 86,500, represent 41% of the total number of international students in higher education institutions, according to the Japan Student Services Organization.
Ogura points out that the coronavirus is spreading faster globally than the SARS infections, a crisis that Japanese universities faced in the 1980s. “The problem this time [is that it] is a far bigger threat to universities and means we have look into taking drastic response measures. In the pipeline are starting classes later than April and more online teaching, for which we are still not prepared,” he said.
Temple University’s Tokyo campus, one of Japan’s few international universities, which, unlike most Japanese universities, follows the American semester system, is already holding classes online during this month.
Dean Bruce Stronach said students and academics have successfully used this method in classes before.
“Students here can participate in classes virtually and participate in discussions on chats with the professor. During a crisis this system is the best way forward, which is how we have managed the fallout so far,” he explained.
Japanese universities, however, are still unused to online teaching. Ogura acknowledges that while the technology is available at universities, professors have not used the systems widely. “Coronavirus is forcing universities to change,” he said, adding that “technology is an important crisis management measure”.