Japan's Colleges Ease Entrance Exams
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But, first, radical changes are coursing through Japan's education system. Japan has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, resulting in fewer students and fewer applicants for college. These demographics are now affecting university entrance exams. Bryan Shih reports from Tokyo.
(Soundbite of birds chirping)
BRYAN SHIH reporting:
Springtime marks the beginning of the new school year in Japan, and, for many students, the renewal of intense preparation for university entrance exams. But the preparation is not as nerve-wracking as it used to be. When Riotatu Shumizu(ph) was in high school 10 years ago, he was given the following advice about how much extra studying he should do.
Mr. RIOTATU SHUMIZU: (Through Translator) They told us to take your year in school and add three hours. For example, if you're a first-year student, four hours of extra study would be enough, but by your third and last year, it was six hours a day, six hours after coming home from school, and studied all Saturdays and Sundays, too.
SHIH: University entrance tests determine much more than a student's future alma mater because the best jobs in Japan have traditionally been reserved for graduates of so-called elite universities. Shumizu says he couldn't forget that when he took his test.
Mr. SHUMIZU: (Through Translator) I felt like I couldn't fail. Even though I prepared for that day and I knew I had the ability, there was incredible pressure that if I failed, it was all over.
SHIH: Shumizu didn't fail. He was accepted at Tokyo University, considered Japan's best college, and now works for the Japanese government. But times have changed in the 10 years since he sweated out his entrance exam. Japan's extremely low birth rate has created a student shortage and a scramble among Japan's 700 universities to find students and fill classrooms. Gregory Clark, the vice president of Akita International University, says most schools are responding by making it easier to get in.
Mr. GREGORY CLARK (Vice President, Akita International University): In the old days, it was always a point of honor, you might say, for universities that they would not accept everybody who applied, that you put up this barrier, which, this so-called entrance examination hell, which they all had to pass through before they were allowed to come to your university. Well, that's clearly disappeared for quite a few universities. And even the elite universities are having to lower their standards somewhat.
SHIH: While some universities are lowering their entrance standards, others are improving their offerings. In other words, universities here are competing for students for the first time since the education system was reformulated after World War II. And the competition is rattling the once factorylike Japanese education system. Even the heavy-handed education ministry here has recognized the looming crisis, and since last year has allowed national universities to privatize and develop their own curricula. Dr. Masuo Aizawa is the president of the Japan Association of National Universities.
Dr. MASUO AIZAWA (President, Japan Association of National Universities): (Through Translator) Until now, even though national universities had all the same character or features, there were more than enough students who came to take entrance exams. But the biggest worry is that from now on just being a national university won't be enough to attract students. If each separate national university doesn't provide its own outstanding features, it won't be able to attract students.
SHIH: The student crunch is already on. With one report saying the number of students taking university entrance exams last year fell by more than 17,000.
Ironically, the falling birth rate has left families with more money to educate fewer children. A lot of that money, about $9 billion annually and growing goes toward supplementary classes at private schools called Juko that, among other things, helps students prepare for college entrance tests.
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SHIH: This online tutoring center, run by a company called EduNet, is buzzing with the chatter of teachers who are videoconferencing through their computers with their students. Students log in from home and choose from 100 private tutors to help them on demand. This kind of customized teaching didn't exist five years ago in Japan. But Mitsugo Iwasa(ph), the president of Tomas Juko(ph) says it reflects the changing attitudes about choosing a college.
Mr. MITSUGO IWASA (President, Tomas Juko): (Through Translator) Before, a University of Tokyo degree was everything. But it's not about a fight over Tokyo University anymore. Little by little, parents are choosing schools that fit their kids without unduly stressing themselves out trying to get into Tokyo University, schools where their children can develop their own uniqueness. The way people evaluate universities is becoming more diversified, closer to American and European models.
SHIH: Commentators here lament the falling birth rate. They say it's poison for both the culture and economy. But for students and parents, fewer babies may mean greater flexibility and more choice in higher education.
For NPR News, I'm Bryan Shih in Tokyo.