COVID-19 Renews Debate on Academic Calendar in Japan

Some see rationale to change start of academic year from April to September.

May 22, 2020

A long-standing proposal to move the Japanese academic year from its usual April start to September has been given renewed impetus as campuses remain closed under a COVID-19 state of emergency.

Petitions supporting both sides of the debate have drawn tens of thousands of signatures each from students and academics.

If implemented, the proposal would finally align the nation’s academic calendar with most of the rest of the developed world and facilitate international exchanges. However, scholars have voiced concerns that a sudden shift could be financially costly and socially disruptive.

The Japanese Educational Research Association (JERA), the country’s largest academic association in the education field, said in a statement this week that private universities alone could lose nearly $9.2 billion if they were required to refund tuition fees during periods of disruption, and that some may even face closure.

Teruyuki Hirota, JERA's president, told Times Higher Education that transitioning the education system, from primary to tertiary, would create an “extraordinarily heavy burden, both in human resources and system change.” A special JERA task force concluded that the proposed plan may not solve current problems caused by the COVID-19 shutdown, such as unequal access to online education. Hirota explained that, if a change were to happen, it could be in the following academic year, starting September 2021.

JERA has petitioned the prime minister’s office and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) against “rushing” into a decision.

Futao Huang, a professor at the Research Institute for Higher Education at Hiroshima University, told Times Higher Education that attempts to move the school year to September have faltered since the 1980s, partly because the shift would affect other sectors, including employment and social services.

“Changing the current calendar to the beginning of September might benefit higher education institutions more from the perspective of internationalization, especially in accepting inbound international students and dispatching domestic students abroad, but it will not necessarily bring apparent advantages to students in primary and secondary schools,” he said. Shifting the entire education system, from the preschool level up, would be “extremely difficult.”

MEXT needed to collaborate with other sectors, including the business community, on such a move, Huang said. “A more comprehensive and in-depth discussion is required” on “which stakeholders would benefit most from the change, and what would be the minimum cost to Japan,” he said.

The idea for a new academic calendar was reignited in April when the new academic year began in fits and starts amid student concerns about the accessibility of online education and the loss of campus life.

Students in Osaka petitioned to move the new semester to September so that all students could maintain “equal educational footing” and “enjoy school life in full.” The governors of Tokyo and Osaka followed up with a call for a “bold paradigm shift” to a September start, which would “make it easier for our youth to be active in the world,” according to The Japan Times.

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