Is it worth coming back to Tokyo?

Photo by Rachel on Unsplash

Every year around this time until last year, I opened a window from the office and breathed a fresh air, subsequently spending a few hours on a beautiful lawn in vacant campus during the early phase of autumn. Autumn is the best season in Tokyo after rainy and excessively hot days in late summer. This year, fresh 18-year old youngsters from an emerging economy of Asia are rarely seen in the unusual physical face-to-face setting in plastic partition. The Asian countries in my class comprise of China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Nepal. Those international students have grown steadily in numbers to share more than 30% of classroom in Japan. The diversity looks a little bit different.

Most faculty members are still reluctant to showing up in the packed classroom, providing their classes with undecided orientation to absent students online. Covid-19 hit many campuses in Tokyo very hard. The formality is broken and the uncertainty looms. Even before the pandemic, the university education in Tokyo should have been scrutinized for the benefits of international students. It is time to reconsider the value of college education during the pandemic. For international students who fly to Narita and spend a long four year duration on empty college campus, is it worth coming to Tokyo now?

A recent story of the Economist, “Absent Student”, illustrates the challenges of university campus in the Western sphere. The writer describes the past golden age of growth. Young hopeful students aged 18-year-old packed their bags and left their parents at homeland. They used to spread their belongings on the lawn for expectations in later life. Under the pandemic, the paper says it, the situation turned around. First, streamed online seminars don’t provide them a good learning experience. Second, universities are likely to lose revenues from high-paying and less demanding good customers. Third, universities are generally very rigid in changing their policies, particularly, the course structure of core faculty members. Forth, the majority of international students are from mainland China. The relation with Sino Continent is souring, which makes campus experience a bit painful for biased group of Chinese students. Government understands the tensions. Domestic students as a whole are becoming less liberal with the borders closed for months, casting some negative view of colleges for value. From students’ point of view, they must think that university faculty doesn’t teach proper subjects for their future jobs. The price of unwanted course is too expensive. Those are the questions in mind of students.

But the biggest problem in four-year degree on campus is that the course is not designed to meet the demand of international students from abroad. The faculty members are not ready. The idea of what an undergraduate education should look like is ignored. Learning becomes a second or third priority. 18-year old students have to find life-long friends and possibly partners by spending a huge chunk of time with classmates. They do so by talking, doing, and engaging in something consistently to develop a sticky relationship in commonality. They can’t do it now.

More often than said, the faculty members are fed up with cheating the examination by a certain segment of international students as well as Japanese ones. Those were just welcomed by small-scale colleges in insolvency because they are treated as high-paying guests. Some 300,000 youngsters were expected to visit the campus of the entire nation of Japan. That is what the government set for its own objective to increase the tax revenues from corporations which find hard-workers at low pay. That was too optimistic. Most of them came to Tokyo for minimal-paying work at restaurants in peak times. In restaurants, the job seekers were consistently in short supply because the hard-working reality of the backyard at workplace. The government set the guideline for up to maximal 28 hours of part-time grueling work per week for international students. Few internationals abide by it.

International students don’t report to the college administration with actual work hours spent at workplace. Some students told me that they work late at night, sometimes, past midnight during the food and drink season in December. In December, professional Tokyoites take up and go out for a drink almost every night to leave behind a bad experience in an urban work hours at office. The Ginza area is a hot night spot for the bars and restaurants. It is less than an hour and half from the campuses where I taught marketing for the last ten years. It is relatively a short trip to the central Tokyo area from Chiba, Saitama, and Kanagawa. International students flooded to the central city for work toward the end of the year.

A lot of faculty members and lecturers know it. Japanese students don’t study hard, either. The most disturbing part of classroom lies in some lecturers I have associated with by accident in the relay series of discussions at classroom. A retired lecturer from the automobile industry didn’t show up in a lecturer’s meeting not even once for five consecutive years. Instead, he met with coordination office off-site on the golf-course. In his report to the office in Hamamatsu-cho after final assignment due to the age lime of 70, he sent a message to other co-lecturers that he brought his wife to spa before the class. His conduct before the class is, I claim, is inadmissible as a teacher. The university covered his expense to his round- trip. The coordination office knew it.

The university coordinators are supposed to provide the opportunity to enhance the quality of class for international students. In reality, the office kept hosting an unproductive gathering followed by a drinking party with fancy Japanese Sushi. In some cases, pre-semester get-together was held on Tuesday, the first weekday immediately after the three-day national holidays in Japan. That is absurd. I don’t entirely support the idea of golfing contest and drinking at teacher’s meeting. The primary part of lecturers’ meeting is that it is just designed to send a formal message of doing something to the administration. In fact, it does not do anything to improve the quality of education. Lecturers didn’t discuss the contents to avoid the overlap between classes, either. Some students complained once that the class didn’t want to hear the definition of marketing from different professors again and again. They let it go for years.

International students in Japan need to rethink the value of university in Tokyo. Given an episode in Economist and my brief and yet true story, 18-year old want to consult with their parents to settle the debate over the course of education and career choice. Four years is certainly a short period to determine the success or failure but with the once-and-for-all investment during the cornavirus lockdown, if you have a better alternative, the answer is self-evident. The golden age of college education is over. It is time to go back to a normal state.

Taught marketing @ universities in Tokyo for a decade, ex-I-banker & mgmt consultant @ Kurt Salm (Accenture Technologies now), Georgia Tech educated