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Japan universities baffled by gov't policy to name schools with fewer non-online classes

An online class is seen underway using a video camera and other devices, in this photo taken on May 7, 2020. Classes were presented in a similar fashion at universities across Japan amid the coronavirus crisis. (Mainichi/Tomohisa Yazu)

TOKYO -- As many universities in Japan keep their classes online amid the coronavirus pandemic, the education ministry's policy of announcing the names of schools where face-to-face classes account for less than 50% of their entire second semester lecture slate has riled faculty and staff.

    Though the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology explained that the policy was "not aimed at denying online classes," university officials and lecturers took the ministry's move as "pressure" to reopen in-person classes.

    When education minister Koichi Hagiuda unveiled the policy at a press conference following an Oct. 16 Cabinet meeting, he stated, "There is this critical situation where students haven't been able to go to campus even once after enrollment and haven't been able to make friends, leading some of them to even consider taking leave or dropping out. What is essential is whether students accept (having to take classes mostly online)." He continued, "I'd like universities to offer 'hybrid' classes that include face-to-face lectures, while taking measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus." He added, "I'm not saying that online classes are disallowed."

    Under the policy, the ministry intends to ask 376 universities, junior colleges and vocational schools about whether their students have accepted the large proportion of remote lectures and announce the results along with the names of the schools. These are the same institutions that responded to an August-September ministry survey that "face-to-face lectures will account for 30%" of all classes or that "almost all lectures will be given remotely" in academic 2020's second semester.

    Baffled by the government's move, the Faculty and Staff Union of Japanese Universities filed a request with the education ministry on Oct. 20, demanding the results of the survey not be released on the grounds that such a disclosure "could force universities to disregard the present realities to give lectures." At a press conference, union official and Shizuoka University professor Yoichi Torihata noted, "Faculty and staff are pursuing the best ways to conduct classes. It's not good to promote the prejudice that online classes are bad."

    Hidebumi Koide, secretariat head of the 410-institution-strong Association of Private Universities of Japan, said, "If universities are named as giving fewer in-person lectures, it will create an unfavorable impression of these schools."

    Education minister Koichi Hagiuda announces a policy to conduct a survey on universities slow to resume face-to-face lectures, during a press conference in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Oct. 16, 2020. (Mainichi/ Akira Okubo)

    Since the onset of the coronavirus crisis, universities have put effort into providing online and other remote lectures to students -- moves backed by the education ministry.

    When the government declared a coronavirus state of emergency in April, the education ministry relaxed regulations set under the Standards for Establishment of Universities that limit the maximum number of credits that can be acquired through online and other remote lectures to up to 60 of the 124 credits necessary for graduation. Subsequently, the ministry introduced favorable examples of remote lectures in an administrative circular issued to each university. "It was meant to be used as a reference in order to keep students learning," said an education ministry official in charge of the issue.

    Many universities viewed these moves as suggesting that the ministry had a positive view of online classes. An increasing number of schools therefore moved to invest in improving their on-campus virtual communication infrastructure and other facilities and supply students with funds to purchase laptops and other necessities for remote learning. As faculty members who were initially unfamiliar with equipment and devices necessary to conduct online lectures have managed to better their knowledge and skills, it was expected that class content would improve in the second semester.

    All this is all the more reason why the private university association's Koide is questioning the ministry's intent to survey student views about online classes and announce the names of universities providing fewer face-to-face learning opportunities.

    "The optimal method for giving classes varies depending on the infection status in each region, the scale of each university, whether the classes are lectures or practical work, and whether the subjects are in the humanities or the sciences. What significance do figures such as 'face-to-face lectures accounting for 30%' have?" He continued, "Not a small number of students have given high marks to online classes, and I want the ministry to look at those aspects a little more."

    (Japanese original by Akira Okubo, City News Department)

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