Make Japanese universities more or less like sumo world

November 20, 2012 Comments Off

Japanese universitiesOne of the reasons why Japanese universities are weak in their international competitiveness is found in the uniquely Japanese way in which educational and research projects are undertaken at the postgraduate level.

Specifically, the fault lies in the system in which a new student at a graduate school is assigned to a particular instructor upon enrollment. Especially in the engineering department, the first thing a postgraduate student experiences is to become a member of the “research group” bearing the name of their instructor.

The research group is comparable to a stable in the Japanese national sport of sumo as each professional sumo wrestler is required to belong to one of the stables. Similarly, the instructor heading his research group is like the stablemaster in sumo. And each department within a university is made up of several research groups, just as a group of several stables form a “family” in the sumodom.

Allowing some variance among individual cases, by and large, postgraduate students are as obedient to their instructor as the sumo wrestler is to the stablemaster. The theme of the master’s or doctorate dissertation is chosen by the instructor and when an article written by the student is published in an academic journal, the instructor’s name appears alongside the student’s as the coauthor.

In my view, any postgraduate institution should operate in such a way that a student who aspires to become a professional researcher receives a highly specialized education in a systematic manner, determines the theme of his or her doctorate or master’s dissertation after a series of trials and errors, seeks advice from an instructor deemed most appropriate for that particular theme, and completes the thesis with the help of that instructor.

In reality, however, any new student at a Japanese postgraduate school is assigned, willy-nilly, to a particular research group, just as a new professional sumo aspirant is assigned to a stable, and made totally dependent on the instructor, just as the wrestler is made obedient to the stablemaster, and given little opportunity of receiving high-level and broad education in specific fields.

Kiyoshi Kurokawa, who previously headed the Science Council of Japan, stresses the need for Japanese universities to become like the sumo world by opening their doors wider to students and instructors from outside of the country.

In the September tournament of this year, foreign and foreign-born sumo wrestlers accounted for 15 of the 42 wrestlers in the makuuchi or senior division ranks. The sole yokozuna or grand champion was from another country. And among the 10 in the san-yaku or titleholder class, six are non-Japanese.

For 39 consecutive Grand Sumo Tournaments happening every second month, the Emperor’s Cup has been won by foreign or foreign-born wrestlers, and there is every indication that this trend will continue for some time to come. Thus, sumodom is completely dominated by those coming from abroad.

Alarmed by this trend, the Japan Sumo Association decided at its Board of Directors’ meeting in February 2010 that only one non-Japanese sumo wrestler would be allowed into any stable for the express purpose of “facilitating the training of Japanese wrestlers and maintaining and developing the traditional sumo culture.”

Similarly, the Nippon Professional Baseball, faced with an increasing number of foreign players, has a rule that each team may have no more than four non-Japanese players on the major division roster.

Despite these restrictions, both the sumo world and professional baseball in Japan are all but certain to see more foreign players. In stark contrast, non-Japanese account for a mere 3 percent of the teaching staff at national universities.

I agree with what Kurokawa is preaching. At the same time, however, I would like to emphasize that Japanese postgraduate schools must deviate from the existing pattern that is so similar to the sumo world. In 1991, the government adopted a new policy of placing more emphasis on postgraduate curricula at institutions of higher education, opening the doors wider for those aspiring to pursue education and research. This also meant the opening of an age of mass-produced Ph.D.s.

Since then, one-third of the new Ph.D.s have been fortunate enough to find full-time employment at their alma maters or at private corporations; another one-third found nonpermanent jobs like postdoctoral research fellows; and it is not known what has happened to the remaining one-third. One of the causes of this undesirable situation is the fact that the postgraduate schools have become like the sumo world.

Since the national universities in Japan were given “corporate” status, their budgets have been reduced at the rate of 1 percent annually, forcing them to slash the number of faculty members. This in turn has given many of those who finished postgraduate curricula no choice except to settle for nonpermanent jobs like postdoctoral research fellows or special-purpose instructors, who are typically paid about ¥300,000 a month with no semi-annual bonuses — a situation common to most wage earners in Japan.

Take for example the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application of Kyoto University, headed by Nobel Prize laureate-designate Shinya Yamanaka, which has about 200 research fellows. Only about 20 of them are said to be on the permanent payroll. This means that a majority of staff are “nonregular” employees being paid out of research funds granted only for limited duration, even though research projects in life sciences are known to require greater manpower than other disciplines.

Yamanaka is asking the education ministry to give “regular” status to his staff, but there is little or no chance of his request being accepted because “regular” jobs are limited to professors, associate professors and assistants, and there cannot be enough such positions to cover his 200 or so staff members. The only solution would be for his research institute to terminate its affiliation with the university and gain a new status as an “independent administrative institution.”

Many Japanese corporations shy away from hiring those with Ph.D. degrees, because doctorate holders are thought to lack advanced knowledge in a wide variety of areas and to be too specialized in the isolated fields taught by their masters — just as the sumo wrestlers are taught by their stablemasters.

For instance, a pharmaceutical company would have little incentive to hire a postdoctoral researcher who worked as a postdoctorate researcher until the age of 40 at an academic institute, because it is assumed that little contribution to the development of new medicines can be expected of a Ph.D. who kept him- or herself busy assisting in the research done by a mentor.

I believe that the international competitiveness of Japanese universities can be elevated only by combining Kurokawa’s theory of “sumo-nizing” them with my proposal for “de-sumo-nizing” them. Translating Kurokawa’s idea into practice would require recruiting university faculty members not just from Japan but from all over the world, assessing them strictly on the basis of their achievements, and elevating the standards of education and research so that outstanding students from other parts of Asia would find them attractive. Implementing my idea would mean abolishing the existing system of assigning each postgraduate student to a single instructor, enabling the student to choose a professor who serves as adviser for writing his or her dissertation, and improving the contents of the graduate school curricula.

Also essential is improving the remuneration for university teachers. If you ask any high-ranking corporate executive how much he thinks a professor is making, you would be surprised by the typical answer — which usually suggests a salary three times the actual amount.

For those who teach at Japanese universities, there is virtually no correlation between what they accomplish and how much they are paid. One out of several dozen professors is paid extra allowances to serve as the head of a research department, faculty or research institute. Such allowances are gone, however, once their terms as the head expire, usually two years after the appointment, reducing their salary to what it was before. In no other country are university teachers paid so little compared with other occupations.

Professors in Japan are in a truly miserable condition at least with regard to pay. The government’s policy of promoting postgraduate-level education has paved the way for the mass-production of Ph.D.s, while an increasing number of workers in their 40s and 50s who have given up hope of climbing the career ladder in private- or public-sector jobs are looking for jobs at universities. As a result, each opening of a teaching job at a university attracts dozens of applicants.

As long as such an oversupply continues, there will be no improvement in the low wage levels of those who teach at Japanese universities.

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