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.

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