Tenured University Students?

Last weekend, the University of Tokyo held its entrance examinations, which for some “lucky” high school graduates means the end of the infamous (in Japan) exam hell. Now, the university system in Japan has the particularity that as opposed to most countries I know of, it is “hard to get in, but easy to get out” , which brings me to what I want to talk about today, incentives.

What I enjoyed the most about the freakonomics books, is their main thesis on how people respond to incentives to do what they do (or don’t). And the university system in Japan is perhaps a textbook example of such incentives. That is, given that university pedigree is such a good predictor of landing a full time job in a big corporation or the government, high school students, have very strong incentives to bust their asses to get into a prestigious university, usually paying big bucks for cram schools that teach them how to excel in these exams (and these schools mean business. One cram school was giving away the results of the exams outside campus barely 30 minutes after the University of Tokyo exams were done!) Now, I did not do my undergrad in Japan so I am not much of an expert, but my theory is that most kids do cram schools because everybody else is doing it, and if you have your incentives straight, you will do everything you can not to loose to all the people around you! Call it a global interaction if you will, but that is a subject for another post.

However, such incentives are all but non-existent once you are in the university, and many courses require but mere attendance and submission of a final report to get credits (Of course I am overly generalizing and there are many good teachers, and hardworking students out there, but if you doubt me, ask around). That out of the way, students are free to enjoy their university life in club activities, and then get serious with job-hunting. So this strikes me a very similar situation to the by now much maligned faculty tenure system, which Wikipedia defines as “an appointment that lasts until retirement age, except for dismissal with just cause”. Although there are many virtues to the tenure system, it is true that it provides a perverse incentive to work near burnout until you get tenure, and the relax and chill until retirement. Note again the over-generalization. A lot of good researchers do excellent work even after tenure, but it cannot be denied that the incentive is there. Which is the exact same incentive universities students have after getting in. So, I conducted a “small scale convenience sample” on this issue , a.k.a. I asked some professors around me, and most seem to agree that the “hard to get in, easy to get out” part doesn’t make much sense. So why doesn’t the situation change? I have some hypotheses:

  1. Political inertia. No need to elaborate,do I?
  2. Tenured* professors, who hold most of the power, have very little incentive to change the way things are. After all, they are already tenured.
  3. Compared to western universities, young faculty have much less responsibility over teaching than tenured ones (at least in public universities). This means that even if the younger (more motivated) generations were up for shaking things up, they have very little chance to do so. And by the time they have the chance,and if they’re lucky, they will probably have a permanent position , and well, see point 2.
  4.  And finally, and perhaps most critically, the Japanese job-hunting/work system. The fact that the vast majority of companies give work offers way before students are ready to graduate, under the assumption that they will graduate on time, and that new recruits must almost always start working on the start of the new fiscal year (April 1), means that students must graduate in March no matter what. Now, Universities could start failing students that do not meet their standards, but such students will probably have their work offers rescinded, and who wants to hire a dude from a university where you have no idea if he will actually graduate? (Don’t mind that he was still a junior when you offered him work).

As such, all the incentives are in place to have exact same system we have today. Now, amidst decreasing number of students, many universities may be wary to take any bold measures to eliminate “student tenure” as to maintain recruitment numbers at profitable levels. So as Japan braces to compete with the rest of the world for global talent, and increase it’s own competitiveness as a nation, it is the task of high ranking (mostly national) universities to address the issue,as they are the ones most likely to gain from this, so forget faculty tenure, how about addressing student tenure first?


*Note that in Japan, the tenure system as in the western university system does not exist in most universities. But most faculty at the associate professor and professor levels have permanent employment, which is at this point equal to tenure. The situation is in fact changing and many new positions are contract based, which is a whole different can of worms that I might or might not discuss in other post.






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