Ja­pan needs to keep fu­ture in mind when re­form­ing

The China Post - - COMMENTARY -

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.

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