University reforms tap post-pandemic shifts in attitudes

Pandemic-related disruption forced universities to adopt survival measures, but the enforced changes have become unprecedented opportunities for reform in Japan’s highly traditional higher education system. In particular, it has provided opportunities to break down barriers between subjects and departments and promote more personalised and flexible university education.

“The pandemic is not only about sickness and deaths. COVID-19 has shed new light on many higher education operations and practices that must meet a ‘new normal’. Tokai is taking this challenge very seriously,” said Kiyoshi Yamada, chancellor of Tokai University, a leading private institution boasting a reputation in engineering and science.

The pandemic led to a global shift in teaching and in learning attitudes, including in Japan, where students now expect the university to be more than a place for top-down instruction. “Universities need to respond to the new demands through disruptive creation and transformation,” Yamada told University World News.

Curriculum reform

The government has identified diversification of higher education including curriculum reform as being among the top objectives to meet 21st century needs. However, Japanese universities are “bogged down with an ingrained culture that prioritises [discussing] the pros and cons of any change rather than taking action. That system is at fault,” he said.

Yamada, a professor of economic law, however, refuses to label COVID-19 as a lost opportunity. Rather, he said, “pandemic despondency” was an opportunity for Tokai to push forward with new approaches to higher education, though he acknowledges this can be a frustrating process.

Mindful of a university culture of stubborn resistance, Yamada noted that “change is a gradual process and can be achieved with small steps. That style is better suited to a large established university like Tokai, steeped in tradition.”

Universities are currently educating undergraduates who were in their first year during the initial COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020. This cohort has experienced the worst impact of the pandemic-related lockdowns imposed in Japan, as elsewhere.

Surveys conducted last year provided sobering insights. While Japanese students appreciated not having to commute to campus on crowded trains during COVID-related lockdowns, they also struggled with loneliness and lack of motivation to study stemming from long bouts of isolation.

Accelerated student mobility

Against this backdrop, Tokai University last year announced its Crisis Leveraged Actions for Revitalisation (CLEAR) project, which draws on its COVID-19 experience to address previously intractable issues in the university, for example, its shared-credit programme that attracted few takers since its inception in 2012 due to a conservative student culture.

Slated to start next April, the CLEAR programme is promoted as an enticing opportunity to accelerate student mobility through a system that is more flexible and also caters to the diverse interests of students, said Yamada, who described it as fish swimming in a sea that is not static or rigid.

In June Yamada spearheaded the concept of higher education as a “travel experience” that encourages students and faculty to embark on learning between campuses with the aim of breaking down borders between Japanese universities.

The changes are significant in higher education in Japan where student mobility is restricted to a particular department or topic. Accepting credit transfer between domestic universities and foreign counterparts is also a more recent development.

A key feature is the development of personalised programmes made up of compulsory subjects and electives that encourage undergraduates to select subjects outside their registered departments and earn credits across the diverse academic offerings of Tokai’s six local campuses and an international college in Hawaii that offers intercultural Pacific Rim studies.

“Harnessing hybrid teaching methods that became popular during the pandemic is also a boost,” Yamada pointed out, explaining that remote learning provides wider access to classes at different campuses.

Tokai Hawaii can enrol students on a quarterly basis, supporting flexible schedules. Undergraduate classes can start in any of its 10-week terms, which is more conducive to cross-border experiences. Similar opportunities are available with Hanyang University in South Korea or Shenzhen University in China under Tokai University’s global citizenship programme.

Smaller classes

Tokai is also pushing smaller class enrolment of 30 to 50 students to foster discussion and peer learning, which is not possible with the average 300-student classes and lecture-style teaching of the established model. Yamada said this reflects a major reform for Tokai that has a 30,000 student body.

“The move to smaller classes is also to reduce anxiety and isolation among students still struggling from the pandemic,” he added.

Expanding involvement in extra-curricular activities is another aim.

In April 2020, after the first reported case of COVID-19 in Japan, the government declared a state of emergency to restrict social contact. At the end of 2021 around 150,000 foreign students could not enter the country, negatively impacting higher education internationalisation. Extracurricular activities were cancelled as campuses closed down.

“What hurt us most was losing international students. They decided not to come because there was no campus life which they cited as critical to studying in Japan. This lesson must be addressed,” said Yamada.

Post-pandemic, the university has a stronger commitment to support student-led projects. Recent examples are activities related to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals which incorporate practical exchanges with the local community, as well as studies on the ongoing Ukraine war.

Focus on humanities

Yamada is also pushing for a renewed focus on the humanities despite Tokai’s reputation for engineering and science, which accounts for 60% of its student enrolment. “New demands in higher education have narrowed the traditional line that divided students between sciences or arts,” he said.

Tokai University’s founders included in its mission the idea of peace in higher education.

“COVID-19 and the university’s rapid shift to digital transformation calls for a deeper look into the humanitarian origins of our education. It is a path to meet the needs of a new generation,” explained Yamada.