AUA Study tour | Japan

November 2019

Liz Turner | Chiara Singh | Oliver Cooper | Laura Johnson | Chris Cooper


Japan also known as Nihon or ‘the land of the rising sun’, is an inspiring country with a legendary work ethic and a very different Higher Education Sector. From the beautiful art of becoming a geisha to the ancient Shinto sport of sumo and medieval samurai heritage, Japan is a land soaked in cultural contradictions also reflected in the HE-sector. In November 2019 five members of the AUA travelled to Japan to undertake an international AUA Study Tour.  None of us had met before applying for a place on the tour and after spending 12 days together, taking almost every type of transport you could imagine and eating almost every food you could think of I think we all found the trip one of the most rewarding experiences we could have ever undertaken! We visited 12 universities as well as the Japanese Ministry of Education and Kyoto Consortium who all shared concerns regarding a rapidly ageing population, and the future challenges this would bring. As well as shaping Japan’s future communities and infrastructure, it would intensely increase competition between universities.

Key themes

All Higher Education Institutions (HEI’s) we visited participated in a Professional Staff rotation system. Every 3 years PS staff would be rotated in their roles working in a completely different role, different department or even different institution including universities and government institutions. The Japanese government centralised education, and it is managed by the Ministry of Education (MEXT) which regulates almost every aspect of the education process. We visited MEXT and it turned out that this rotation system is a relic from the days of the national government management when MEXT had even greater controls over the way universities operated. In April 2004, National universities in Japan were incorporated which meant they were given more autonomy from the government and more freedom to be in control of the way they operated. This saw significant restructure with university management structures realigned placing university Presidents (Japanese equivalents to VC’S) at the centre of decision-making processes. It also allowed universities to create more external partnerships and to work with communities to be more responsive to societies changing needs such as Japan’s rapidly aging population. The benefits of this system include experiencing a variety of different roles, therefore broadening experience and knowledge and gaining a greater understanding of how people and processes fit together whilst expanding networks. On the other hand, it could be disruptive when working on long-term projects and you would need to be highly adaptable to keep building new relationships, familiarizing yourself with systems and processes and learning about different areas of expertise. Besides internationalisation and student experience, another prevalent theme was the university wide Graduate Employability Scheme that all third-year students participate in alongside their studies. This intensive competitive process sees all students simultaneously compete for places at prestigious companies to become fully fledged ‘salary men’ or less commonly ‘salary women’. The Japanese work ethic is legendary with the traditionally termed ‘salary men’ working 60-hour plus weeks. However, the universities we visited valued work-life balance as well as work ethic and some even provided day care centres on campus for those with caring responsibilities.

Although there were a number of differences between how HE works in Japan and in the UK, there were also several similarities. Many of the activities that we discussed with the Japanese universities felt very similar to some of the issues we are currently dealing with in UK universities. Japan has an aging population and is suffering from a steady loss of eighteen year olds each year which is forcing the sector to seek change and diversify.  The group met with the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports and Technology who told us that dealing with the issues that come from having an aging society is forming the basis of all the current government policies in Japan. There are 780 universities in Japan and due to the decline in eighteen-year olds many of them are struggling to recruit and are looking to diversify their portfolio. The top priority to help with this is increasing the number of international students choosing Japan as a place to study.  The government is offering additional funding sources to Japanese universities who are embarking on increasing activities in this area. A number of the universities we met with are looking to welcome more international students by increasing the staffing in international offices, offering new courses delivered in English, upskilling faculty staff’s English skills and creating more partnerships with international institutions.  Many are also looking to expand their audiences by offering more opportunities for people to continue their education by offering more MSc and PhD places and increasing its online provision.  Other similarities between the two countries included; the low percentage of female students undertaking degrees in STEM subjects, a rise in students disclosing mental health issues and increasing support needed for this and regional universities concerned with tacking the issue that a high number of students want to study in larger cities first.  All the universities we met with very extremely generous with the time they spent talking to us and showing is their campuses and we had some really interesting conversations where both countries shared examples of how we are all endeavouring to mitigate these shared issues.

Japanese culture and a reason to jump out of bed each morning!

Ikigai is a Japanese concept which some say is the secret to a long happy and fulfilling life. It originated from the Japanese island of Okinawa, home to the largest population of individuals aged 100 and over in the world. The Ikigai concept is a useful tool to help find your ‘why’ or

used to help shape the career and life direction you may wish to travel in and is seen as the convergence of four primary elements and by reflecting on the answers to these questions:  

  • ‘what do you love’ – what is your passion 
  • ‘what does the world need’ – what is your mission 
  • ‘what are you good at’ – what is your vocation 
  • ‘what can you be paid for’ – what is your profession 

Your Ikigai may not be one physical thing or a specific profession but rather an underlying theme that you carry with you throughout your life, the thing that motivates you without even trying. It is an invisible thread, woven throughout your history in the fabric of your personal and professional life, until you recognize what it is and when you do, you can use it to create an environment and future that is suited to you in all of these areas.  

Meetings with representatives from each institution always started with the act of exchanging business cards which was like a ritualistic ceremony. Everyone we met was extremely polite and accommodating and during our meeting with the Consortium of Universities in Kyoto we were even treated to a traditional Japanese tea drinking ceremony, one of the most ancient and beautiful traditions representing purity, tranquillity, respect and harmony. This tea ceremony has even developed as a transformative practice centered around the Japanese philosophy of ‘Wabi-sabi’. Simply put wabi-sabi is finding ‘beauty in imperfection’. It is a way of living that focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections of life and accepting peacefully the natural cycle of growth and decay. This Eastern perspective with it’s roots in Buddhism  views beauty as “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete’’ in contrast to the Western and Greek ideals of beauty and perfection. From a professional development perspective If we could accept our imperfections perhaps, we would find more energy and room for growth. As well as the fascinating nature of these ceremonies they also acted as great leveler. We were meeting Vice Chancellors, Chief Operating Officers, International administrators and several students gave us tours around the campus but when we were all taking part in the tea ceremony, we were all subject to the same actions and treatment regardless or status or hierarchy. We even felt we were all working toward the same goal which was a very powerful and profound thing to achieve especially with very little or no talking. With Japan’s earthquake resilient infrastructure, multi-level libraries and efficient bullet trains, there is a juxtaposition between deeply engrained cultural practises, traditional societal values and a future of transformative change in the HE-sector. However, Japan’s unique culture and ancient philosophies may hold the very key, to not only surviving, but thriving in the HE-sector in these times of change.

Food, drink and downtime

Our schedule was tough with lots of visits to many universities with quite a bit of travelling between them all.  The trains in Japan are super-fast, super clean and super easy to navigate.  The highlight of all the travel was the Friday evening train ride from Tokyo to Kyoto where we had an empty bullet train carriage just to ourselves!  Though we had a busy itinerary we did still manage to find some time to see many of the amazing sites Japan has to offer and try lots of amazing food.  Our schedule saw us visit Tokyo, Kyoto, Beppu and Hiroshima and so we endeavoured to make as much of the time that we had there as we could.  This included trips to the Golden Temple, the Arashiyama bamboo grove, a ride on a romantic train (that was its actual name and we can confirm it was not romantic!), the big Buddha at Kamakura, Nara Park and Fushimi Inari shrine.  The group made sure we fully emerged ourselves in Japanese culture and bonded as a team by partaking in many late night karaoke sessions.  Though the food may have been our favourite part of the trip and we tried to enjoy as much new food as possible with some members of the group being extremely brave with their choices.  We tried lots of amazing restaurants sampling sushi, countless bowls of ramen, tempura and kushiyaki (basically meat on sticks – not everyone loved the chicken gizzards).  Chris had lived in Japan previously so was a fountain of knowledge when it came to the multiple convenience stores Japan has to offer and helped the team navigate the multiple options available.  We can all fully recommend Kewpie mayonnaise as possibly the best mayonnaise in the world and we have also found it for sale in the UK too!  Chris is also an amazing reader and speaker of Japanese and this was invaluable on the trip – thank you for saving us many times before we potentially ate the wrong thing Chris!

This is just a snapshot of our tour and we are in the process of finalising a report on the full study tour that will be published shortly on the AUA website.  We will also be discussing our trip in more detail at the AUA conference in session 203 on the Monday afternoon.  We hope to see you there – we might even do some karaoke!

Chiara Singh | School Office Manager for the School of Computer Science, Electrical and Electronic Engineering, and Engineering Mathematics | University of Bristol 

Chris Cooper | Associate Director for Service Transformation | Kings College London 

Laura Johnson | Learning & Teaching Manager for the Faculty of Science, Agriculture and Engineering | Newcastle University 

Liz Turner | Head of Academic Policy & Quality Office | Oxford Brookes University 

Oliver Cooper | Head of Strategic Projects & Administration in the Campus & Commercial  Services Group | University of Warwick 

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