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University of Tokyo Considers Shifting Academic Year

Worried about being left behind in the globalization of higher education, the University of Tokyo is laying plans to shift the start of its school year from April to autumn—in 5 years or so.

Japan's April-to-March academic year is out of sync with the majority of universities around the world and is "one big reason" the country lags in both attracting international students and in sending its own youth abroad, Takao Shimizu, a university biochemist, said today at the unveiling of a preliminary report recommending the switch.

The report, produced by a committee Shimzu heads, notes that last year a mere 1.9% of undergrads at Todai, as the university is called in Japan, were international students. This compares with 10% at Harvard University and 7% at Stanford University. The number of Japanese students from Todai going overseas is equally paltry—and declining. The school-year mismatch also affects graduate school enrollments and scholarly exchanges. This all hinders Todai's and Japan's ability to produce "internationally minded leaders," said Junichi Hamada, the university's president.

Shimizu's committee will gather comment from within and beyond the university before finalizing its recommendations by the end of March. Before implementing the shift, however, "there is a mountain of issues to resolve," Hamada said. These include when to hold entrance exams, what students will do between high school graduation in March and entering university, and how this change might affect job hunting, since most Japanese companies take on new hires just once a year—in April. Even university sports schedules are based on the April-to-March cycle.

Todai doesn't want to go it alone. Hamada said it intends to launch discussions with 11 other top Japanese universities interested in the idea. Todai also wants corporate input. "This is something not only for the universities to consider," Hamada said. He also doesn't expect the change to result in "a sudden explosion" in student exchanges between countries. Issues such as scholarships and living conditions for foreign students also need to be tackled, he said.

Working out all the details is likely to take 5 years or more. "We're just at the beginning of this process," Hamada said.