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Is There a Way to Make Japanese Universities More Meaningful and Attractive in the Future?

Hiroko Aoki
Professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Political Science, History of Political Thought

Students show us: What is worth or is not worth going to campus for.

Since the spread of the Delta variant of the coronavirus began subsiding in the fall semester of 2021, Chuo University resumed face-to-face classes. However, even when face-to-face classes resumed, most students did not show up to the classrooms.

This was true of my classes as well. My classes are held in a hybrid format to accommodate the needs of the students who are not comfortable leaving their homes during the pandemic. The classes are also recorded and shared. The classes that were recorded and shared can be viewed repeatedly throughout the term.

As we approach the end of the fall semester, we have learned that the majority of students choose not to come to class as long as we are holding hybrid classes and sharing the recordings. Not all of these students are worried about going outside during the pandemic. At first, I thought that this trend might be limited to my class, but it seems that many professors in our university and other universities are also observing similar trends. This trend is more prominent in large classes held in large classrooms, and in medium-sized classes held in medium-sized classrooms. For specialized courses (seminars) held in small classes, all students attend in person. One freshman said that he comes to campus because his second-period PE class is face-to-face, otherwise he would not come to campus. Freshmen have not had much of an opportunity to become accustomed to university and make friends, so it also sounds like they are not expecting much from campus life, which surprised me.

What could this mean? Back in AY2020, students were eager to come to campus and attend classes in person. Many were complaining that it was becoming hard to make friends. At other universities, some students were even filing lawsuits to have their tuition fees returned if they could not attend face-to-face classes and use the university's facilities. I wonder if students have become so accustomed to online life that they prefer it to the real-world campus life. Or was it the result of their efforts to face the current reality in a positive way to maintain their health, as they adjusted to the pandemic over the past two years?

Of course, student life centered around online classes is not all bad. In fact, there are many positive aspects with respect to improving academic skills and gaining knowledge. You can go over the class recordings as many times as you want, making it possible to not miss anything. You can also view it whenever is convenient for you, making it easier to plan your schedule. You do not waste any time commuting. Also, you do not necessarily have to stay home to take online classes. You can go on campus, and sit and snack with their friends somewhere outside the classroom while discussing the content of the classes. Having the freedom to study in any way you want is a good thing. Having more choices in any context is always a great thing, and should be welcomed.

It is as if the students are unintentionally showing us through their choices what they consider is worth going to campus and classrooms for, and what is not. If these choices become clearer in the future, we can expect to see classes split into a face-to-face format for practical seminars and workshops, and an online format for lectures, while also considering whether we even need large classrooms anymore. There may be other factors to reconsider that we have not yet anticipated. Furthermore, this is not just about how classes are held or the method of education. The way examinations and admission selection tests are conducted will also be reconsidered. The importance of Japan's one-shot entrance examinations, in which all students gather together on one day, will also be questioned.

The way classes are taught, the way classrooms are designed, the way the campus is designed, and ultimately the grand design of the university itself will have to change. All of this is a very exciting prospect. As the Faculty of Law is about to move to the Myogadani Campus, it seems like an opportune moment to figure out how the campus and university should be set up, so that we have more choices.

The pandemic raises the question: What is the role of a university campus?

Even after considering all of the above, I am still concerned about the fact that students seem to have become accustomed to online life, and no longer see much value in campus life, as mentioned earlier. They think that if all they need to do is get their credits, graduate, and find employment, they would rather not go to the campus if they do not have to. They want to use their time in more meaningful ways.

If you just want to earn credits and graduate, or if you just want to study to pass a certification exam, you may not ever need to even step foot on campus. However, a university is a place where many different people and ideas intersect. On campus, through contact with various people, books, and academic endeavors, students encounter ways of thinking and value systems that are completely different from their own for the first time, and even find ways to empathize with them. By hanging out with friends, exchanging opinions openly, and just chatting, a university is a place that offers encounters with the unknown, and social life to all the people gathering there. Of course, there is also the prospect of a future in which society will be able to do these things online just as well, or even better than before. Currently, however, as a result of the pandemic driving students away from campus, a problem that Japanese universities have been dealing with for a long time is rising to the surface. It is becoming increasingly clear that for Japanese students, a university is a place where all they are expected to do is to take the easiest ways to earn credits and graduate, and land the job they want.

What is the situation like overseas? From what I have heard from a friend who is familiar with the current situation of universities in the U.S., even amid the pandemic, students are eager to return to campus life, including dormitory life. It is often said that in universities in the U.S., the enthusiasm that students have for studying is incomparably higher than in Japan. This is especially true at the top Ivy League schools, where accreditation is far stricter than in Japan. Also, unlike Japan, students live in dormitories on campus or near campus, and the university library is open 24 hours a day, with many students gathering in the library even in the middle of the night to study. I'm afraid such differences between Japan and the U.S. will become more and more apparent throughout the pandemic. If this trend continues, Japanese universities will increasingly cater to students who only want to get credits or study for certification exams, and their fundamental purpose will be questioned. There is also the fear that if study abroad programs and research exchanges with foreign countries shift more toward online formats--that is to say, if more options become available as globalization accelerates due to a major online shift--Japanese universities will diminish in significance, and the number of people who find Japanese universities to be an appealing option will decrease both in Japan and abroad.

Reconsider: Raison d'Etre of the Japanese Universities

In closing, I hope that students do not succumb so thoroughly to the pandemic that they give up communicating with others. At the same time, I hope that they will become standard-bearers of the remote work generation that is not afraid of the digital world. I believe that Japanese universities have arrived at a critical juncture where they need to make an effort to change and learn more from universities overseas, so that they would become more meaningful and attractive, in order to prevent them from falling into a place where students only earn credits or learn how to land a job.

Hiroko Aoki
Professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Political Science; History of Political Thought

Dr. Hiroko Aoki, born in Tokyo, is Professor of political science at Chuo University since 2020. She received her Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Public Administration, International Christian University in Tokyo.

She has been working on the idea of democracy and liberalism, centering on the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment thought. Her current research focuses on the school of common sense philosophy and its influence to the American pragmatism.

〇Principal Research Achievement
・Hiroko Aoki (2010) Adam Ferguson no Kokka to Shimin Shakai (Adam Ferguson's Views of the State and Civil Society), Keiso Shobo. (in Japanese)
・Yasuo Amoh, Darren Lingley and Hiroko Aoki eds. (2015) Adam Ferguson and the American Revolution, Kyokuto Shoten. (in English)
・Adam Ferguson (2018) translated by Yasuo Amoh and Hiroko Aoki, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (Shimin Shakaishiron), Kyoto University Press. (in Japanese)
・Hiroko Aoki and Hiroshi Ohtani (2020) Joshiki ni yotte Aratana Sekai wa Kirihirakeru ka—Common Sense no Tetsugaku to Shisoushi (Can We Open Up a New World by 'Common Sense'?—the Idea of Common Sense through the Perspective of Philosophy and History of Thought), Koyo Shobo. (in Japanese)