TOKYO -- Hakubun Shimomura, Japan's minister for education and science, has been working to make the country's universities more competitive globally since his appointment to the post in December.
In an interview, he discussed the government's "Abenomics" policies, as well as the need to internationalize Japanese higher education, attract foreign faculty, improve English language capabilities and update the admissions process.
He also commented on his personal experiences of the Japanese university system in relation to his son, who has learning disabilities. His son attends a British university, from which he expects to graduate this year.
Q. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to reinvigorate the nation through Abenomics. Is this related to initiatives by you and your panel?
A. They definitely are. To sustain economic growth, we need to spur technological innovation and create new industries in fields like medicine and health care, not just in the conventional industries of the automobiles and home electronics. One good example of our efforts in this arena is the ¥110 billion [$1.12 billion] we committed to the research of iPS stem cells led by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, the Nobel laureate. [Induced pluripotent stem cells, referred to by Mr. Shimomura, are stem cells derived from ordinary body cells rather than embryos].
We need to develop human capital to realize industrial growth as envisioned in the "third arrow" of Abenomics. Our per capita gross domestic product has fallen from being the world's No. 2 to No. 27 recently. As the labor force shrinks and the population ages, lifting productivity is about the only pathway to realizing higher economic growth.
Q. What is the main challenge for universities?
A. Japan's higher education has not truly been a place to foster global talents. For a good illustration of that, look at where Japanese universities are in the published rankings. Fewer Japanese universities today are on these lists.
Strengthening universities would allow us to develop talents that better serve the needs of our industries. Individual universities may not be able to do it by themselves financially, so, the government and universities should share the strategy and work together.
Q. What should they be doing to become more global?
A. We want Japanese universities to increase the number of international faculty, raise the number of classes conducted in English and introduce standardized tests like Toefl as a means to lift English skills. We also want to double the flow of students coming to Japan and those leaving Japan for overseas institutions.
To that end we are providing greater subsidies to those universities that are serious about making changes.
The Education Rebuilding Implementation Council stated in a recent report that "the delay in the globalization of Japanese universities is reaching a critical state." Those are pretty strong words.
A. Japanese universities are like isolated ivory towers. Their refrain has long been 'freedom of education and research,' but you suddenly realize they have been unable to cope with today's realities. Few are globally oriented, and few are in sync with the needs of today's society at home.
Q. What can be done more specifically to transform college education?
A. One important suggestion from the Council concerns the admissions test. Currently, university admissions revolve around having students take a one-time test -- and that's it. It is skewed toward knowledge building and rote learning.
Basic knowledge is necessary in the real world, but what's needed more are diverse talents, leadership skills and human empathy, as might be gleaned from extracurricular and volunteer activities during high school.
These are the kinds of abilities that we should be looking for as we prepare our youth for the globalized world.
Q. Can you tell us about your son and how he ended up at a British university?
A. My son will graduate from the University of the Arts London this year with a fashion design degree. He got in because it was a British university; he probably would not have made it had he applied to a Japanese university.
To gain admission at a Japanese university you have to score well broadly in different subjects. Even if you are going into art or music, you have to pass the general subject tests and only after then will they evaluate your artistic capability.
My son has difficulty reading, especially long texts, due to learning disorders. In Britain, if you excel in three subjects of your choosing in high school, you can get into top schools. I felt the British system is more open to a broader range of people and talents. I would like to see the system here be revamped so that avenues of opportunities will be open to all children.
After all, considering where we want to go, it is less important for us to create 10,000 people with run-of-the mill capabilities than a few with superb talents.
Q. Your panel has come up with many suggestions, including attracting more foreign experts. But recruiting highly paid international scholars might not sit well here. Are you sure that change will be acceptable, especially at state-funded universities where attitudes might be more conservative?
A. What we will do is assist those institutions that are willing to adapt and change. The traditional approach was to farm out subsidies in accordance with the size of the university, thus respecting its existing position and stature in higher education.
I'm aware that the idea of giving a salary to an outside scholar that exceeds the university president's, for example, will not resonate well, generally speaking. So, we will be providing funds to where there is a will to change and adjust. We are not taking the conventional, 'treat everyone the same' approach.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.