Japan's University of the Air beams learning to masses

Somewhere in Maebashi, an unprepossessing hamlet about 80 miles north of Tokyo, an 82-year-old housewife sits glued to her television screen. No, she is not a shut-in. Rather, Shizuko Kato is partaking in a grand educational endeavor. Japan's first broadcasting university -- known here as the Hoso Daigaku, or University of the Air -- made its debut early last month. Mrs. Kato, deterred from attending college 65 years ago in a society that considered educated women unmarriageable, is now studying for a college degree by watching TV.

So are nearly 19,000 others in the area around Tokyo. Already, the university is being heralded as more than an outlet for the idle. Shinya Obi, a University of Tokyo astronomer and one of the university's 50-member faculty, likes to talk about the ``new educational opportunities'' the university will provide to those who might otherwise never crack a textbook.

It is the first broadcasting university in the world to have its own radio and television channels. Each carries 18 continuous hours of lectures and documentary programs daily, seven days a week. It is also scheduled to become the world's first truly national university. Though the service is now limited to those in the area around Tokyo, university officials say that by 1990, satellite broadcast arrangements will enable the rest of the country to tune in as well.

From all indications, plenty will want to. Though more than a third of the high school graduates in Japan go on to some form of higher education, the opportunities here to continue one's training in later life are comparatively few.

So the university has been deluged with applications. Officials planned on 10,000 applicants; instead they got 19,188 -- nearly half of whom say their goal is a degree. Administrators accepted the 18,659 who had applied in time. Applicants look like a cross section of Greater Tokyo society. There are day laborers and clerks who never went to college, as well as fast-climbing professionals who want an intellectual refresher course.

Tuition costs are heavily subsidized by the government: So far it has invested 10,000 million yen ($40 million) into buildings and grounds and facilities, while the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science is underwriting the cost of the university's operating budget. The cost of a degree runs about 750,000 yen ($3,000), certainly a bargain.

For their money, students choose from three main disciplines: science in everyday life, industrial and social studies, and humanities and natural sciences. Text materials accompany lecture materials, and broadcasts are repeated several times each week. Written reports are sent by mail, while individualized instruction and class exams are given at six regional study centers. A minimum of four years of study is required to garner the 124-credit total needed for a degree.

Many observers view the innovation as one step along Japan's long journey toward educational reform. ``This university is a good sign that things are changing,'' says former Education Minister Michio Nagai. ``It wouldn't have been possible 15 years ago.''

Back then, deep dissatisfaction with Japan's educational status quo began to take root. It was sparked by the student unrest of the 1960s but has continued to develop since.

Though no basic university reform was actually carried out, a number of initiatives got under way. A new, less restrictive, Western-style university was established at the new Tsukuba Science City. School curriculums were loosened somewhat. Two colleges were founded where schoolteachers could return for graduate training at government expense. And now the University of the Air, supporters say, brings education to the masses.

``It democratizes education,'' says Yoshioka Shinobu, an author specializing in Japanese education issues, of the university's unusual open-admissions policy. ``Higher studies have become too much of a refuge for the nation's elite.''

Whether its graduates will be able to break into those ranks of elite is another question. The national universities, led by flagship Tokyo University, are the cheapest and most prestigious places of higher education. With a few notable exceptions, private institutions are far more expensive and less desirable places to attend. In such a pecking order, the University of the Air, with its open admissions, would rate very low indeed.

Still, officials have labored to ensure that their university's degree is perceived to be solid. Credits are transferable to and from other universities -- a big step in Japan. It is also starting out with a first-rate faculty. More than one-third of the 50 full-time faculty members come from the ranks of Tokyo University professors who left due to the university's mandatory retirement age of 60.

The faculty at the University of the Air, unlike at other government-funded universities, are not civil servants. But some observers wonder how much that will matter. The university's buildings in Chiba City, near Tokyo, they point out, are built right alongside the government's new National Center for the Development of Broadcasting Education.

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