Led By Tokyo University, Japanese Universities Consider Academic Calendar Shift

A preliminary report from Japan’s top-ranked Tokyo University (Todai) made waves last week with a recommendation that the school shift the timing of the academic year. Thirty-six other national universities have also expressed some interest in the semester-shift. Currently, Todai’s April admissions dovetail with Japan’s other major universities and the nation’s primary school system, as well as the job-recruiting calendar for graduates. The proposed September start date, designed to boost the university’s international profile, would facilitate study abroad for both Todai students and those hoping to study at Japan’s premier university. This new move is a step towards greater international competitiveness for Todai – and perhaps other Japanese universities – but will need to be accompanied by more comprehensive internationalization efforts to be effective.

While the university first proposed the change last summer, flagging ratings in the 2011-2012 Times Higher Education world university ranking no doubt increased the sense of urgency among Todai administrators. As in previous years, the university primarily lost points in the “international outlook” category. Todai’s preliminary findings highlighted the issue, reporting that only 0.4% of the university’s students were studying abroad in May of last year, and exchange students made up just 1.9% of the undergraduate student body.

This dismal percentage, echoed at many of Japan’s other top universities, stems at least in part from the disconnect between Japan’s academic calendar, and those in most other countries. Todai’s first semester runs from April to July, the second from October to January, creating timing problems for Japanese students hoping to attend universities in the United States or Europe. Administrators hope that a revised schedule would also increase interest among students from other countries hoping to study in Japan. 

Given the glacial pace of internationalization efforts at the national government level, Todai’s proposed policy should be welcomed by anyone who hopes to see Japan stay competitive – both in academia and business – in the coming decades. Increasing the number of study-abroad students at Japanese universities will help to expand the pool of skilled foreign workers with language skills and experience in Japanese society, which could be an important element in addressing labor demand from Japan's business sector. Perhaps even more importantly, sending more students abroad will help Japan to keep pace with a rapidly globalizing world.

However, simply changing the academic calendar will not remove all of the obstacles which currently make studying abroad challenging. Unlike many American universities, which heavily promote study abroad for nearly all students, Japanese Universities often make the process difficult - requiring an arduous application or testing process for those who wish to study away from the school. Even those students who participate in study abroad or exchange programs approved by their schools may be unable to get course credit – imposing both the financial burden of an extra year at university (in addition to the added costs of tuition at most American universities), and delaying graduation. If Todai and other schools hope to encourage study abroad, they will have to address these other challenges.

Both students and educators also worry about how the proposed change would affect the career prospects of future graduates. Japanese companies’ new recruits begin work in April, so Todai students graduating in May would likely find themselves jobless for months. Teachers in medical and teaching programs have also expressed concerns about the effect of the calendar shift on hands-on training programs and the national exam schedule. These worries are reasonable, and will have to be addressed by Todai if it hopes to see its plan succeed. Still, Todai’s leading role in Japanese academia puts it in a uniquely influential position – if Todai decides to adopt the plan, other universities will no doubt be watching closely. 

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