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Education

Go abroad: Japan employers and colleges eye globalized school year

September start expected to encourage students to study overseas

Known as Japan's most prestigious university, the University of Tokyo follows a quarterly academic calendar that makes it easier for students to study abroad.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Employers and universities have welcomed the growing debate on pushing back the Japanese academic year's start to September, hoping to encourage more students to study abroad and expand the nation's pool of globally competitive talent.

The debate has gained momentum as a way to allow students, who have not been able to go to school since the new school year began in April, to start over in September. But the move would also bring Japan's academic year in line with the global norm. 

"Without a change in environment, the dialogue won't move forward," Sojitz CEO Masayoshi Fujimoto said. "We should actively promote the idea."

The trading house has adopted a flexible hiring process that accommodates new graduates on unconventional schedules. But "it would be a big plus for companies if we can hire students who are studying abroad and those in Japan at the same time," Fujimoto said.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology began serious discussions in March on moving the school year to fall as schools were shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. And the debate picked up pace in recent weeks as concerns grew over long-term school closures. 

"We want to consider various possibilities as we plan to reopen our schools," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told lawmakers Thursday. The government set up a team that day to look into the changing the academic year.

As of now, Japan does not send that many students abroad. Just 4% of Japan's university students studied abroad as of 2017, well below the average for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. There had been attempts in the past to shift the academic calendar to lift this share.

"It will make studying abroad and exchanges easier," said Kansai University President Keiji Shibai. "Overseas students can also put Japanese colleges on their lists." Shibai did caution that there will be a significant impact on various levels, including on students currently studying for college entrance exams.

A September start "means I'd be able to study abroad without worrying how our terms line up," said a student in her final year of high school in Tokyo.

The University of Tokyo in 2011 began considering a fall start to its year but ultimately ruled it out as no other colleges expressed interest. Waseda University and Keio University instead adopted a quarter system that gives students more openings to go abroad.

Shifting the academic calendar from the elementary level up will require legislative changes, such as to the age children start school. Japan's fiscal year also begins in April, raising questions over whether and how to make it match a September academic year.

A change would also impact companies that follow a more traditional calendar, where they hire a class of new graduates that following April. "With a September school year, companies will need to seriously consider hiring people year-round," said an official at the Japan Business Federation, or Keidanren.

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