Japan needs to keep future in mind when reforming
The Wall Street Journal reported that Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing for cutbacks in liberal arts programs in universities to make space for a more science- and job-oriented higher education system. The prime minister also aims to increase the number of Japanese universities in the world top 100 from two to 10.
According to the Journal, Japan’s 86 national universities were asked to hand in restructuring plans by the end of June. The universities were also told that public funding would be allocated according to their level of accommodation of the government’s new goal.
The revision of Japan’s higher education system is part of Abe’s plan to energize Japan’s business by “injecting more dynamism and innovation into the economy through a greater focus on research,” the newspaper reported.
The plan to sacrifice humanities and social science education to boost a nation’s business is not only shortsighted but also wrong. Even considering Abe’s shortsighted goal of promoting business above all else, including Japan’s famous literary and artistic traditions, the new plans will be counterproductive. Eventually Abe’s plan will hurt the businesses he aims to help. As brainpower is becoming more important then manpower in a global economy increasingly driven by innovation, the business leaders and valued skillful workers of the future cannot be manufactured through a well-designed conveyor belt of vocational programs. In a renowned example, Steve Jobs, founder and reviver of Apple Inc., received inspiration for his groundbreaking products from liberal arts programs such as calligraphy. Business leaders often cite the ability to “think outside the box” as an important talent. The best way to nurture such talent is to allow future industry warriors to have experience or friends living outside their box of business, instead of transforming Japan’s universities into one big job-training center.
Another example would be Taiwan. The nation’s obsession with research and global ranking numbers appears to have failed to produce talents businesses need. Surveys by local business magazines routinely point to employers’ complaints about Taiwan’s lack of skillful talents. But look more closely and one will find that businesses are often looking for skills other than research prowess. Workers with good foreign language mastery, communication and team-building skills are said to be hard to find. Foreign chambers of commerce in Taiwan have on more than one occasion expressed the opinion that while many Taiwan’s workers are highly skilled in fields such as engineering, their lack of English skills and willingness to communicate have hampered foreign businesses’ desire to hire local workers. Languages, communication skills and basic common sense can often be obtained through general education and liberal arts programs deemed by governments such as Taiwan’s and Japan’s as “unrelated to business competitiveness.”
Japan needs to revitalize its economy but its new plans are not the way to do it. In the wake of the global financial meltdown and Great Recession in 2009, the world has paused to review the direction of its MBA programs, which churned out business leaders that failed profoundly to anticipate the crisis. There have even been calls for a complete rethink of university education. If anything, one of the contributors to the financial crisis was the key actors’ isolation from the world outside their lines of business.
The world is moving at a lightening speed. In a few decades, machines armed with advanced artificial intelligence are widely expected to be able to replace humans in many areas of work, including white collar jobs. The Japanese prime minister is ill-advised to bet his country’s future on making the future generations of Japanese men and women robots of business.