There are about 780 national, municipal and private universities (daigaku 大学) and about 2.8 million university students in Japan, and about 350 colleges (tanki daigaku/tandai 短期大学/短大) and 130,000 college students, including those of municipal and private colleges (MEXT, 2014a). Those who graduated from high schools in the Japanese school system and passed the entrance examinations provided by the institutions can enter a college or university. About 54% of high school graduates advance to college or university (MEXT, 2014a). In many Japanese universities, students study English as a foreign language, and the number of universities that provide specialized subjects in English has been increasing (MEXT, 2014b).
Unlike for junior-high and high schools, which are subject to MEXT guidelines, English curricula at colleges and universities are determined by the individual institutions, which are free to set course levels and goals, to choose textbooks, and to decide teaching methods. Often such decisions are made by the department or by the individual instructor.
English education in colleges and universities is often criticized by society at large because, even though they are the highest educational institutions and the last academic destination for most students, the level of achievement attained by their students is not as high as some might wish.
In 2014, the Central Council for Education (Chuō Kyōiku Shingikai 中央教育審議会) started discussing reformation of the common university entrance examination (MEXT, 2014c) as one strategy to raise the level of English education and achievement. The discussion on the reformation started in response to a request from industry, where developing “global human resources (human resources with English communication skills)” has been put forward as a key solution to survive in a highly competitive globalized society. Under this proposal, the English examination may change drastically from the current examinations, which are focused on reading and are made by university faculty, to tests created by institutions outside universities, such TOEFL, TOEIC, or IELTS. The new examinations are intended to balance measurements of students’ four skills (reading, listening, writing, and speaking).
Erikawa (2013) and others, however, have criticized the introduction of English examinations made by outside institutions on the grounds that they will introduce competitive principles into education. Critics have also asserted that, because of the difficulty of tests such as TOEFL and because they are not designed with the Japanese secondary-school curriculum in mind, the adoption of such tests would widen educational disparities by benefitting children from families who are wealthy enough to afford supplementary education. Moreover, Yoshida (2014) and others have said that universities have been at the mercy of the goal of developing “global human resources” demanded by society, insisting that they need to reconsider the purpose of higher education and its role in society.
English instructors in colleges and universities often face deterioration of students’ learning motivation. Learning English becomes less meaningful for most students once they pass the entrance examination of colleges or universities, because, for most of the students, that will be their last academic destination. According to the SY2005 survey of 150,000 third-year high-school students nationwide on the status of high-school curricula (NIER, 2005), while about 82% of the students realized the importance of English study, only 40% of the students showed a positive attitude toward English study. How to motivate students has become a huge challenge for English education in colleges and universities.
Erikawa, Haruo (2013). Daigaku nyushi ni TOEFL nado toiu jinsai karakodomo o mamoru tameni (To protect children from a human-generated disaster, the introduction of TOEFL or other examinations into the university entrance examination) Eigo kyōiku, semarikuru hat an (English education: On the verge of a crisis). Hitsuji Shobō. △ 江利川春雄「「大学入試にTOEFL等」という人災から子どもを守るために」『英語教育, 迫り来る破綻』、ひつじ書房、2013年。(WorldCat)
Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology [MEXT] (2014a) School Basic Survey SY 2014. △文部科学省 平成26年度学校基本調査 (MEXT Website)
Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology [MEXT] (2014b) The status of reformation on university education (summary) (J) △ 文部科学省 大学における教育内容等の改革状況について（概要）(MEXT Website)
Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology [MEXT] (2014c) Central Council for Education Special meeting for connection between high schools and universities (The 17th meeting) The meeting of advisors on English education Summary of the discussion on English ability assessment and introduction of the examination made by institutions outside universities. (J) △ 文部科学省 中央教育審議会 高大接続特別部会（第17回） 配付資料 英語教育の在り方に関する有識者会議 英語力の評価及び入試における外部試験活用に関する小委員会審議のまとめ 概要 (MEXT Website)
National Institute for Educational Policy Research [NIER] (2005) The SY 2005 investigation results on implementation status of the education curricula in high schools. (J) △国立教育政策研究所教育課程研究センター 平成17年度高等学校教育課程実施状況調査 (NIER Website)
Yoshida, Aya (2014) “Global human resource development” and university education in Japan: from the perspective of "localism" in discussion among actors, The Japan Society for the study of Education, 81(2). △ 吉田文「「グローバ ル 人 材 の 育 成 」 と 日 本 の 大 学 教 育」、『教育学研究』第81巻 第2号、2014年。(JERA)