EDEV_505 Week 8_2

After reading about the issues in university admission in the US about the tension between egalitarianism and meritocracy (Caldwell, Shapiro, & Gross, 2007; Shom, 2006), I decided to share a story about university entrance that affected me in my previous post.

Most university admission in Japan centres on a single test. Not unsurprisingly in an age of falling birth-rates and the lowest 18-year-old population in modern times, many have questioned the equity of relying on a single tool to perform such an important function (Arimoto, Cummings, Huang, & Shin, 2015). The result has been the proliferation of other means of admission procedures whereby candidates can gain admission bypassing the entrance test. One such procedure is the Recommended Applicant (suisen nyugaku) which involves a candidate being recommended by a high school teacher. In my previous university, RA candidates were required to attend an interview during which the interviewing panel would rate the candidate’s worthiness. There was the tacit understanding that every candidate should pass the test, and generally I found that most applicants were roughly suitable for the level of education we were providing. Once though, a candidate was so unable to do the interview that I submitted a failing score to the Admissions Committee. This started a lengthy set of discussions; the upshot being that the student was admitted and I was taken off the interviewing panel for the next five years.

This case contains a number of ethical dilemmas. Space forbids the unpicking of more than one or two of them, and I will forgo any question of my competence in judging the candidate. Let us assume that the candidate really was terrible. With an enrolment of over 75% of 18-year-olds entering some form of higher education, Japan has entered universalisation (Trow, 2007). A direct consequence of the decreasing birth-rate and the increasing number of universities is the perception of a decline in academic standards at the tertiary level (Arimoto et al., 2015). This reduction in available numbers further leads to universities needing to accept lower level candidates, students who would not have entertained the idea of a university education previously. From the university’s perspective, the imperative to accept these students arises from a purely fiscal motive; without sufficient numbers, the faculty would become redundant.

I do not wish to portray this situation is simple black-and-white terms. It is not merely the unethical question of money grabbing above all else. The Japanese ethos values egalitarianism, especially in education (Aspinall, 2013), and issues of profit or loss are subservient to group members’ security. The question here may be stated as the consideration of the value to the student of the education they are likely to take against the value to the faculty of that student’s fees and existence in the student body. In other words, can that student benefit from our education, and to what degree? In my mind at that time, I could not see how an illiterate, uncommunicative candidate could benefit from the education we provide. They would require extensive remedial tuition, assuming that even that would help.

McVeigh argues powerfully that university education is a ‘myth’, that the quality of education—for the most part—at the tertiary level cannot be called ‘university’ (McVeigh, 2002). McVeigh does not consider the role of corporations in the continued training of their recruits into their methods and values. The purpose of much of Japanese university education is not the same as equivalent Western institutions (Hadley, 2015). He claims that the relationship between teacher and student is less Confucian than factory boss to worker (p. 91), suggesting the metaphor of the Japanese worker robot devoid of personality and existing only to serve the state. McVeigh’s invective seems to stem from his expectation that the social purpose of the university is the same worldwide. However, the same situation can be read differently. Rather than have the Japanese blindly living out subconscious social routines, it can be argued that they comprehend their situation as well as anyone, and that they are agentive in authoring a society that values the protection of its members. After they had accepted the weak boy into their fold, a professor was assigned to look after him during his four years. Simply taking the tuition money and leaving a new member to flounder was never an option. The faculty had long recognised that the value of their bachelor’s degree is far less to do with any academic prowess and far more to do with commitment and to potential growth. But I still wouldn’t allow that student.



Arimoto, A., Cummings, W. K., Huang, F., & Shin, J. C. (2015). The Changing Academic Profession in Japan. Cham: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-09468-7

Aspinall, R. W. (2013). International education policy in Japan in an age of globalisation and risk. Boston: Brill.

Caldwell, C., Shapiro, J. P., & Gross, S. J. (2007). Ethical leadership in higher education admission: Equality vs. equity. Journal of College Admission, (195), 14–19. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.liv.ac.uk/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=24453161&site=eds-live&scope=site

Hadley, G. (2015). English for academic purposes in neoliberal universities: A critical grounded theory. System (Vol. 51). Cham: Springer. doi:10.1016/j.system.2015.04.010

McVeigh, B. J. (2002). Japanese Higher Education as Myth. Armonk: East Gate. doi:10.1353/jjs.2004.0010

Shom, C. (2006). Minorities and the Egalitarian: Meritocratic values conflict in American higher education. Journal of College Admission, Winter, 8–13.

Trow, M. (2007). Reflections on the transition from elite to mass to universal access: Forms and phases of higher education in modern societies since WW11. In J. J. F. Forest & P. G. Altbach (Eds.), International Handbook of Higher Education: Part 1 Global themes and contemporary challenges (pp. 243–280). Dordrecht: Springer.


About theCaledonian

Scot living in north Japan teaching at a private university.
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