Major Makeover for the University Entrance System

Society Culture

Japan’s university entrance exam system and high school education are on the verge of undergoing a large-scale reform. Factors driving the reform include changes in the university student selection process, wrought by the declining birthrate, and awareness that the current system is not doing enough to prepare students for a global world.

In December 2014, the Central Council for Education (an advisory body to the minister of education) submitted a proposal for integrated reform of high school education, university education, and selection of university applicants. Then in January 2015, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) drew up an action plan based on the proposal and has since been working to flesh it out. The reform aims to shake up high school and university education, as well as the university admissions process that links the two, in an integrated manner.

Government to Introduce Two New Tests

Two national tests will be introduced under the proposal. The first is a basic academic achievement test for high school students, which will help students grasp their level of achievement in different subjects with the goals of motivating them to learn and improving their academic proficiency. Universities will also be able to use the test results as a reference in gauging the academic achievement of applicants at the high school level. The tests will be administered to second- and third-year high school students, and the results will be evaluated with a focus on the firm acquisition of knowledge and skills taught in compulsory subjects.

The second test is an academic assessment test for university applicants, designed to measure to what degree prospective students have acquired the abilities required in university studies. It will primarily look at test takers’ “powers of thinking, judgment, and expression and other faculties needed to draw on their knowledge and skills to identify their own issues, explore solutions, and communicate outcomes.” To assess intellect, judgment, and expression beyond the conventional bounds of individual subjects, the test will include cross-subject and comprehensive questions in addition to subject-specific questions. It will be administered several times a year.

Both tests will use computer-based testing and a tiered grading system. Moreover, private-sector certification and proficiency exams will also be employed for English and some other subjects.

University-Administered Exams to Change Too

Universities will also be conducting student selections individually. They must consider how they can develop and enhance students’ “zest for life,” as MEXT describes it, and particularly the academic ability that applicants will have obtained in high school before sending them out into society. And to achieve that vision, they are to take a multifaceted and comprehensive look at the kind of attributes that students should have as they enter university.

“Zest for life” as defined by the Ministry of Education comprises “rich humanity,” health and physical strength, and academic ability. Rich humanity calls for the acquisition of culture and norms of conduct, which are essential to becoming responsible shapers of the country and of society. There are three broad aspects to academic ability: a self-directed attitude of learning through cooperation with diverse people; the ability to think, judge, and communicate in order to discover problems independently, explore solutions, and express outcomes; and knowledge and skills.

To comprehensively assess the academic ability of applicants in keeping with the above descriptions, universities are to employ a number of criteria in addition to the results of the proposed academic assessment test for university applicants. They may include essays, interviews, group debates, presentations, survey sheets, certification exam scores, performance in competitions, and other materials demonstrating applicants’ past efforts. The proposal also recommends using written responses coherently expressing the applicants’ own thoughts to gauge their powers of thinking, judgment, and expression.

The basic academic achievement test for high school students will begin in fiscal 2019, while the academic assessment test for university applicants will be launched in fiscal 2020. Reforms in the selection process by individual universities are to proceed in a piecemeal manner. Anzai Yūichirō, chair of the Central Council for Education, says the reform proposed by the council “will be on an entirely different level than previous reforms to the entrance exam system.”

Shifting from “Being Taught” to “Acquiring” Knowledge

Realizing the vision of a smooth transition between high school and university set forth in the proposal will require drastic changes in both high school and university education. Specifically, high schools and universities must alter their education content, methods of learning and instruction, evaluation methods, and educational environment in a manner conducive to developing students’ "zest for life" and academic ability. Changes in the process of how students are assessed as they move up from high school to university, it is assumed, will drive the transformation of high school and university education.

Reform of high school education will proceed by way of revisions to the Courses of Study, the national curriculum guidelines. The current guidelines lay down the goals and content of each subject with a focus on the question of what to teach. The new focus will be on what skills and abilities are to be imparted, and, to reliably nurture these skills and abilities, the guidelines will be revamped from the bottom up so as to more clearly define the desired learning methods and environment.

Efforts will also go into dramatically enhancing active learning, in which learners take initiative in cooperating with a range of other people to identify issues and find solutions.

Meanwhile, universities will be obliged to formulate their own policy triad consisting of admissions policy, diploma policy, and curriculum policy, and legal changes will be made accordingly. Other reforms include establishing curriculum management for university education as a whole—that is, beyond the level of individual courses—and systematizing and structuralizing the curriculum. As with high school education, universities are to shift the focus of their classes from imparting knowledge to active learning.

Smaller Youth Population, Easier Admission

The reform was initially motivated by falling academic performance. The progressive decline in Japan’s birthrate has halved the population of 18-year-olds—the age at which students typically advance to college—from 2.05 million in 1992 to 1.18 million in 2014. Over the same time period, the college enrollment rate has gone up from 38.9% to 56.7%. The upshot is that entering university has generally become easier and students do not need to study as hard for entrance exams as their predecessors did. There is also the view that AO (admissions office) exams and admission by recommendation have largely turned into means of securing new students.

Nurturing Skills for a Global Age

These trends in university entrance exams have sparked sharp criticism that high school education is not consistently nurturing the academic ability that every child should acquire at that level, while universities are being questioned as to how much additional value they are giving students before they sail out into the world.

In its proposal, the Central Council on Education painted a harsh outlook for Japan’s future. One reason is the plummeting number of people in their productive years; the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research predicts that the productive population will shrink by over 9 million in the 15 years starting in 2015 to less than 70 million. Another concern is globalization, as children will need a strong command of skills that will serve them well in meeting the challenges of a globalized world. The proposed reform is borne of a strong sense of alarm over these issues, and there is no time to be lost.

Idealistic Reform Led by the Prime Minister’s Office

There are two characteristics to the latest reform that were not seen in past education reforms: namely, that the Kantei (prime minister’s office) and government are taking the initiative and that it is based on strongly idealistic grounds.

Recent education reforms have taken shape within a confrontational paradigm, in which the Kantei and Liberal Democratic Party leadership, both at the center of power, would criticize the Ministry of Education, those in the LDP with a special interest in education, and the education establishment.

This is not the case for the latest proposal, which is the outcome of the Central Council on Education’s expert deliberations in response to a proposal on the same subject presented in October 2013 by the Education Rebuilding Implementation Council, set up under the prime minister. Far from being at conflict, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō and Education Minister Shimomura Hakubun have been working closely with each other on this matter. This is no surprise in light of the fact that the two also sat together on the similarly named Education Rebuilding Council, launched in October 2006, as prime minister and deputy chief cabinet secretary in charge of the council, respectively.

Furthermore, politicians have come to make more policy decisions in recent years, and Shimomura has been demonstrating strong leadership. With the Kantei and the cabinet minister in charge firmly holding the helm of reform, there is little need to adjust the complex interests of educators and other parties and reflect them on policy, as has been the usual process. What is more, the reform plan is heavily tinged with the policymakers’ idealism.

But at the end of the day, education is an organic entity that exists not within a vacuum but within the dynamics of civil society. However idealistic the reform may be, there is still the possibility that those dynamics will steer it in a different direction.

(Originally written in Japanese and published on March 3, 2015. Banner photo: Applicants walk into the University of Tokyo’s Hongō campus to take the National Center Test for University Admissions on January 17, 2015. © Jiji.)

globalization Abe Shinzō education birthrate Ministry of Education universities University entrance reform Central Council for Education Shimomura Hakubun