Disabled students in Japanese Higher Education – a time for change

The Open University of Japan (OUJ) hosts an annual international symposium on matters relating to higher education.  This year the theme was supporting disabled students in this context and in particular the role of ICT here.  [See:  http://www.ouj.ac.jp/eng/sympo/2015/eng/] This is timely because the Japanese Act on the Elimination of Disability Discrimination was enacted in 2013. From 2016, this means public universities are legally obliged to provide reasonable accommodation to students with disabilities, while private universities are expected to make diligent efforts to provide this for them.  The Japanese’s own perception is that they are about 30 years behind the USA and UK in this regard.  The symposium consisted of a presentation from the host organisation and four invited speakers, two from the USA, a Japanese leader in the field and myself from the UK.  Each presented on key themes from which the delegates from across the Japanese higher education sector could reflect and draw from in their own context.  Disabled students are currently very under-represented in Japanese higher education; in fact the Open University in the UK alone has more disabled students studying with it than across the whole of the higher education across Japan.

This blog posts discusses some of the lessons I learnt from this my first visit to Japan and impressions I gained.  It is the beginning of an exciting period in Japan that should see an increase in the representation of disabled people in the university student body and significant enhancements in the provision of appropriate support for them.

The numbers game

Takeo Kondo, of the University of Tokyo, gave some detail of the current situation in Japanese higher education and compared it with the USA and the UK.

The official 2014 published statistics showed Students with Disabilities (SWDs) in Japanese Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) numbered 13,449 out of 3,213,518 (0.42% out of all students including undergraduate and graduate students). [JASSO, 2014]

This was compared with  U.S figures for undergraduates in 2009 of  10.8% (19,155,000 out of 2,076,000) [US GAO, 2009];

and the UK figures  of SWDs among the 740,000 first year students enrolled in higher education in 2012 as 73,000 (9.8%). [HESA, 2014]

At the Open University in the UK  in 2013/14 there were over 18,000 undergraduate students declaring a disability: more than 14% of all OU undergraduates. [Internal Data]

The symposium chair, Prof. Hirose, stated that in 2013, there were 90,154 students studying with the Open University in Japan, of whom 698 had declared a disability (0.77%):

  • Visual impairment: 168 students
  • Hearing impairment: 32 students
  • Physically handicapped & sickly individuals (sic): 331 students
  • Others: 167 students

There needs to be some care when comparing such statistics as different classifications of disability may have been used. Further, all these figures are based on self-declaration of disability.  There may be cultural reasons why less disabled students declare their disability at Japanese universities and certainly, with much more limited support currently available for them, there is less incentive for them to do so.  Why declare a disability if it makes no difference to the university’s provision of support?

However, even given these caveats it is clear that SWDs are significantly underrepresented in Japanese higher education compared with the USA and the UK, maybe by a factor of 20.   Takeo Kondo’s presentation went on to give data on the changes of the Japanese data over time and a breakdown of the representation of different disability types.

Reflections on discussions

There was a formal discussion panel at the end of the symposium which addressed selected questions that had been submitted in writing during the day.  The fact that far more questions were submitted than could be addressed in the time was indicative of the delegates concern for the topic.  The speakers had spent 3 hours the previous day having a tour of the Open University of Japan and in less structure discussion with about 10 of their staff.  This section summarises and comments on key themes that arose in both these contexts.

Both from the organisers of the symposium and the delegates it was obvious there was a high degree of anticipatory anxiety about what the change in law means they need to do and whether they have the means to do it.  This could be compared to a commonly expressed anxiety in UK HEIs when the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) was extended to include education with the coming into effect of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (SENDA) in 2001.  As well as anxiety about what needs to be done and how to do it there is also an anxiety about how this will be funded.

It was noted that the pedagogic models of the Open University in Japan and the Open University in the UK were very different.  The former is much more of a transmission of expertise style.  There is little discussion between students and lecturers and they do not deploy tutors.  This has significant implications for how support is best offered to disabled students.  At the OU in the UK if a student with disabilities encounters particular problems it is likely to be their tutor that first aware of this.

The difference in disabled student numbers between Japan and the UK or USA is very marked.  More research would be needed to fully understand this.  Certainly the historical lack of provision of support is a factor.  However other factors may be more significant.  One area here is the impact of the Japanese school system.  From the brief discussions had this appears very proscriptive both in terms of curriculum and style of teaching.  There is a strong emphasis on tradition skills such as well-formed hand writing of Japanese characters.  It appears that if for any reason a school pupil does not fit into this well, which might be because of a disability, they are likely to fall behind educationally and not develop aspirations to go onto higher education.

Concluding Comments

The law is seen very much as a driver for change.  This may well be the case and it was a factor in the enhancement of provision for disabled students in the UK following SENDA in 2001.  However law alone will not affect a substantive change.   Meeting the agenda of widening participation of higher education to be more inclusive of disabled people will have to become part of the value system of Japanese HEIs.  It is going to require a commitment beyond meeting of the letter of the law.  It will need institutional change not just the setting up of specialist support units.  The Japanese perceive themselves to be 30 years behind the USA and UK.  However, it need not take them 30 years to catch-up if there is the political will to affect change throughout the educational system.  I mean to maintain a watching brief on this transition and hopefully undertake some detailed research on it with Japanese colleagues.

References

HESA, 2014 – Higher Education Statistics Agency (2014) Statistical First Release 197: 2012/13 first year students by Disability. https://www.hesa.ac.uk/stats

JASSO, 2014 – Japan Student Services Organization (2014) Fact finding survey on supporting higher educational opportunities for students with disabilities (in Japanese)  http://www.jasso.go.jp/tokubetsu_shien/chosa.html

US GAO, 2009 – U.S. Government Accountability Office (2009) HIGHER EDUCATION AND DISABILITY  Education Needs a Coordinated Approach to Improve Its Assistance to Schools in Supporting Students http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-10-33

 

 

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Martyn Cooper

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