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December, 2009


Top Tech Education

Japan's national colleges of technology enjoy a stellar reputation both at home and abroad for the quality of the teaching and training opportunities they provide. The Japan Journal asked Hayashi Yujiro, president of the Institute which oversees the national colleges of technology, about the role the institutions play in Japanese—and global—industry today.

The Japan Journal: Could you outline the history of the national colleges of technology.

Hayashi Yujiro: National colleges of technology were established in 1962 during Japan's period of high economic growth to respond to the requests of industry. During this period, Japan did not have enough qualified people to be able to support the rapid expansion and development of industry. The government expanded the numbers of departments and students in the faculties of technology of the national universities. Meanwhile, it set up national colleges of technology to train practical, mid-level engineers. Twelve colleges of technology were initially established. The number has now grown to fifty-one, each playing a role in the development of Japanese industry and responding to the needs of the corporate sector across the country. There are now 50,000 students. National colleges of technology as well as the faculties of technology of national universities have contributed to the development of Japanese industry, especially in the form of manufacturing technologies, and to making Japan the world's second economic power. The colleges have evolved and have set the bar very high in Japan and overseas as institutions providing practical education and producing engineers with cutting-edge skills, rather than the mid-level engineers that were once the mainstay.

What are the features of the education provided by colleges of technology?

The most significant feature of the education provided by the colleges of technology is the theoretical and practical foundation offered through a five-year unified school program. Given close ties with local industries, colleges combine classroom lectures with practice, as part of their mission to provide a practical education.

To develop engineers with advanced skills, colleges of technology give each student assignments relating to industrial technologies. The colleges have a system in which academics work together with practical instructors who come direct from industry to ensure comprehensive opportunity for practical training.

Needless to say, faculty development, which means improving the functions of the faculty, and professional development, or improving the quality of teachers for faculty development, are both important. Apart from that, as the challenges of science and technology become more wide-ranging and globally complex, student development becomes increasingly vital. This means student-oriented education. In other words, it is important to give students the ability to respond to the needs of society if they are to truly use the skills that they acquire. Places of education are not only for learning but also for experiencing a simulation of society. The basis for cultivating advanced human resources is having students, as citizens, use this experience to learn about the history and culture of the area around the college they attend, while acquiring the knowledge and skills they need.

What perspective do colleges of technology take in seeking to produce graduates with sophisticated skills?

To encourage innovation in society, Japan is turning increasingly to science and technology as the key drivers. Not only do we need to focus on the creativity that science and technology enable; we must also be prepared to address challenges. The challenges we face today are related to the sustainability of energy and the global environment, the creation of a secure and safe knowledge-based society, and the preservation of national and regional identities as industry globalizes.

There is a growing need for people who have the skills to propose technologies that can address these problems and challenges of the twenty-first century, and who can discuss solutions. Japan's colleges of technology see their role as providing the community with these kinds of people, producing graduates who have wide-ranging knowledge and interests outside their areas of specialty.

The plants that our colleges cooperate closely with are shifting from simple production facilities to centers of research and development, and so we believe that it is essential to adopt a Cooperative Education system, referring to education programs incorporating working experience in specialized fields through business-academia collaboration. Businesses are seeking people who can do the R&D needed to create the seeds of products that respond to community needs. We ask businesses what kinds of people they need and what technology components are required. Based on their answers, we take steps to ensure that our colleges provide practical education and equip students with advanced skills. Of course, Cooperative Education needs teachers with expertise in local industrial fields if it is to produce graduates with the skill sets needed to compete in this age of economic globalization and international competition.

You have developed a medium-term plan. What are the main points of the plan?

The medium-term plan shows how we can link the incorporation of the Institute of National Colleges of Technology in 2004 to the reform of the member colleges. The establishment of the institute does not mean that fifty-one colleges of technology must develop standard and uniform education. The important thing is that each college undertake voluntary and autonomous r e form geared to regional characteristics, so we achieve diversified development. In that way, we believe, the institute will be able to contribute to the development of industry nationwide. Reforms that take place after universities gain corporate status are likely to lead to competition, and we believe the institute will be able to play a key role.

So the main point of the medium-term plan is that we will take the lead in reform, provide information on the overall strength of colleges of technology from around the nation, and offer a nationwide stimulus. In the first medium-term plan (FY2004 to FY2008), following our incorporation, we focused on developing a new system and prepared for restructuring designed to achieve greater sophistication during the second medium-term plan (FY2009 to FY2013). As part of this restructuring, in each of four prefectures (Miyagi, Toyama, Kagawa, and Kumamoto) where there were two colleges of technology, we consolidated two colleges into one college with two campuses on October 1. The purpose of the consolidation is to enhance the quality of education by developing a new structure for departments, expanding advanced courses, and creating wide area centers for shared use in line with the needs of regional communities.

What are the key elements of the second medium-term plan?

In the second medium-term, we plan to expand the restructuring to improve the degree of sophistication at other colleges of technology. We will consider fusing departments and introducing a courses system. We will look at expanding majors, setting up departments in new fields, and restructuring curricula, based on local and industry needs. For example, to equip our students with the ability to respond to the fusion and combination of different sciences and technologies, as seen in the fields of the environment, resources, energy, nanotechnology and information technology, we will fuse departments in areas such as machinery, electronics, information and urban environment and will introduce new courses, each consisting of about ten students. In this way, we will merge different fields and develop clear course characteristics.

To improve student expertise, we have developed a system for admitting students to university studies at institutions such as the Nagaoka University of Technology and Toyohashi University of Technology. We have also established paths to advanced courses (two years) following a five-year curriculum and to graduate schools after the two-year courses are completed. To provide society with graduates who have more advanced expertise, we need to provide diversified career paths that ensure a connection between different courses.

What is the status of international exchange involving colleges of technology?

All fifty-one colleges of technology have accepted overseas students. We are looking to expand the number in response to the government's plan to accept 300,000 students from abroad. The number of overseas students studying three-year courses (from the third year to the fifth year of the curriculums of colleges of technology) was 460 in FY2008. We dispatched 1,662 Japanese students overseas for short terms, some under exchange agreements.

The pillars in the basic policy of the colleges for student exchanges and internationalization include encouraging academic exchange with overseas educational institutions, refining the overseas internship system, and stepping up acceptance of overseas students and the dispatch of Japanese students. The fifty-one colleges each have different overseas student acceptance systems; we emphasize the unique character of each college. In April this year, we established a Center for Foreign Student Exchange Promotion at Okinawa National College of Technology that will plan and execute events for student exchanges and will support the activities of each college. We organized a short-term program at Okinawa National College of Technology this summer, providing foreign students studying at colleges nationwide with training in the Japanese language and culture. We also used the program as an opportunity to exchange opinions with teachers and Japanese students.

What are the characteristics of the international exchange being pursued by colleges of technology?

The first feature is our overseas internship system. Since colleges of technology have concentrated on community-based activities, they have very strong connections with businesses that have production bases overseas, compared with other educational institutions. They are therefore able to attract corporate cooperation relatively easily when it comes to placing interns. Through this internship system, students can develop experience as engineers working at international plants.

Students of colleges of technology have chosen their paths in life at a very early stage, when they are just fifteen, and tend to be very motivated. If they had entered a normal high school and had gone to college, they might have found other possibilities. Given that, we devote all our energies to enhancing the potential of students as engineers. In that context, we believe international exchanges are vital to expanding the potential of students. Colleges of technology have been closely connected with regional industries and have kept pace with their trends. With that experience, the colleges have flexibility in their technological education and developing their activities overseas. We have capabilities both in Japan and abroad.

The second feature of colleges of technology is that they cooperated with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in one of its projects. We cooperated in the project that began in Turkey in 2002 to develop education in automatic control and equip people with skills in that technique. Colleges took part in the project, tapping their experience and expertise in practical education. It doesn't matter where in the world you are, automatic control is essential for the development of industry. Turkey wanted to improve its technical education in this area, especially to cultivate mid-level engineers. Colleges of technology have accepted young teachers of vocational high schools in Turkey through JICA. Meanwhile, we have to date dispatched twelve expert instructors from our colleges to assist in creating textbooks for teacher training, providing training, and developing an evaluation method for the training. This work has earned our colleges high regard for their expertise in practical education. As part of this basic policy, we also promote international exchange based on our participation in the JICA project.

The education that Japanese colleges of technology provide has attracted overseas interest, hasn't it?

Our education is highly regarded in Turkey, for instance, and was also given high marks by an OECD higher education research group that visited Japan in 2006. We believe that our colleges of technology are recognized by many other countries as practical educational institutions that contributed to Japan's impressive growth and have helped the country become a technology powerhouse. Delegations from Egypt, Canada, Azerbaijan and Rwanda have all recently visited colleges of technology to observe the facilities and learn about the system. Some delegations visited colleges to identify ways they can bolster practical educational systems for young people in their own countries. People from countries that are emphasizing technology are particularly interested in the practical education provided by colleges of technology, and the role it has played in Japan's success. We believe that our colleges of technology can use their strengths to make international contributions. We will be encouraging international exchange and international contributions, looking to expand exchanges, especially with East Asian nations with which we share some cultural aspects and have a history of exchange.

What are the challenges in international exchanges and international contributions?

International exchanges will not succeed without local and global collaboration and coordination among government, industry, and academia. All three of these sectors are becoming more and more active internationally. Our challenge is to understand the direction that the country and regions need to take, and then determine how government, industry, and academia are able to handle globalization and community-based activities while encouraging international exchange.

With economic globalization, Japanese businesses are moving their production bases offshore. Globalizing operations is important not only to large companies but also to midsize companies. Some graduates of colleges of technology have become overseas plant managers and supervisors of overseas plant construction. Engineers, whether Japanese or foreign, will need to be active internationally. We need more people who have honed their skills in community-based and international circumstances if Japanese industry is to globalize and if Japan is to make an international contribution. And therein lays the mission for colleges of technology.

Interview by CHIBA Hitoshi, The Japan Journal