Japanese Universities Urged to Get Tough

TOKYO--Japan practically invented quality control in product manufacturing. But life is different in academia. Once past the notoriously competitive entrance exam, a university student faces an easy ride: There is little homework, few reports are required, professors rarely track attendance, and it is almost impossible to flunk out. This may change, however, as an advisory council on Monday urged universities to tighten grading practices and graduation requirements.

"Previously, the quality of a university graduate was judged not by what they had learned but what university they graduated from," declares a report from the University Council, an advisory body to Monbusho, the science and education ministry. To address this, the council urges that attendance, class participation, and midterm exams and reports figure into course grades, which are now typically based only on a final exam or report.

The council also says that formal evaluations of educational programs should be a factor in funding decisions. The 226-page report contains a host of other recommendations, including having universities develop areas of particular strength and be more flexible in accommodating the needs of students, including part-timers.

The introduction of quality-control measures "could be a good thing educationally," says Shinichi Yamamoto, director of the University of Tsukuba's Research Center for University Studies. But he adds that revising long-established university practices "will probably be difficult." Mindful of this, the council suggests starting with small steps, such as allowing students greater flexibility in transferring credits. The establishment of an evaluation system is left for an unspecified future.