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UNIVERSITIES: ANXIOUS ALUMNI (int'l edition)

Elite Tokyo University isn't providing the top-notch managers Japan needs

Tsuyoshi Kitagawa, 20, comes from a long line of Tokyo University graduates. His grandfather studied law there. His father majored in economics. Now, Kitagawa follows in their footsteps, pursuing law as well. A degree from Japan's No. 1 university used to guarantee a dream job for life at a prestigious company. But now, with Japan's financial crisis deepening, Kitagawa is afraid of what may await him upon graduation. ''My worry is that even if I enter a good company, it may go under,'' he says.

Tokyo University students like Kitagawa have been Japan's power brokers for longer than anyone can remember. They have dominated career tracks at Japan's marquee corporations and ministries. The university, known colloquially as Todai, claims credit for most of the officials at Japan's Ministry of Finance and the engineers who built Japan Inc. Finance Minister Kiichi Miyazawa and Honda Motor President Hiroyuki Yoshino are among its alumni.

Yet like so many other guarantees in Japan, this covenant is starting to crack. Kitagawa and his classmates are the first generation of Todai graduates since World War II to face diminished economic prospects and the reality that even Japan's best companies can no longer afford to keep lifelong employees.

The recession is taking a toll. Nearly 35% of Japanese college grads could not find work this year. That's almost eight times the national unemployment rate of 4.3%. But Todai graduates feel less pain. Out of 1,465 students who sought work, only three could not find jobs. However, some must settle for jobs they previously would have scorned. ''It used to be the name Todai guaranteed you a prestigious position,'' says Masahito Shirasu, 19, who will hit the job market in three years. ''Now, it seems to have less meaning.''

TOO LENIENT. Many of the skills Japanese students learn are not the ones Japan needs. While Todai may offer Japan's most competitive education, it suffers from the weaknesses inherent in the country's university system. Japan's grade schools are intense and focused on rote learning, but its universities are too lenient. Once students pass their entrance exams, they are expected to use their time to learn to get along with other potential leaders. There are few tests and little homework.

The system worked as long as corporations and ministries needed cooperative and unquestioning new recruits to follow orders. Now, these same organizations hope to tap innovative youngsters for new ideas. But they are discovering that a Japanese education does not encourage inventiveness. Inside Tokyo University, some professors with experience in the U.S. worry that some departments are on a par with third-rate American universities.

So Tokyo University has started to rethink its curriculum. It has almost tripled the number of computers, from 300 to 872, and added videos to English class. It has required freshmen in nonscience majors to develop problem-solving skills by taking a course in identifying challenges, investigating them, and writing reports on how they should be solved. In response to a critical Ministry of Education report in November, Todai will ask outside monitors to critique classes. ''Unless professors take a greater interest in improving their classes, the situation will not get better,'' says Wataru Omori, dean of the graduate school and college of arts and sciences. A math class review by a professor from the University of California at Berkeley produced a ''severe'' evaluation, says Omori.

But for Tokyo University's reforms to work, corporations and ministries will have to make changes in their hiring criteria, too. Most Japanese companies do not care about students' grades. They will hire a dismal student at Todai rather than a good student from another university. So students have little incentive to study. Instead, they try to excel in sports matches or enroll in outside schools for certificates in skills such as foreign languages.

Traditions die hard. Even the smallest change is excruciating at this proud institution. But the longer it takes Tokyo University to reconstruct its ivy towers, the longer it will take for Japan to develop the human capital it needs to set a new course.

By Emily Thornton in Tokyo



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