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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

June 03, 2009

English course exemptions and money matters

1. Class exemptions:

Most universities worldwide will offer course exemptions on basic courses to students who have transferable credits. We do too. Medical school attracts a number of transfer students, graduates, and even a few folks from the working public who’ve decided that they ‘have a dream’. If these students have a credit equivalent for English Communication or other basic English courses they are exempt from attending those courses at our university. I suspect that is true for most universities anywhere.

We have another exemption that is, in my opinion, less justifiable. A student with an 800+ TOEIC score is also exempt from the basic English communication courses. (In fact, at one time it was set at a paltry 550[!!!)). When students got word of that, a large number currently enrolled in the classes took a TOEIC exam and passed the 550 level easily, dropping out of my class halfway through the semester. It became an easy out, a credit given for success on a commercial venture- paper credit.

The biggest problem is that there is a huge difference between training for, and taking, a TOEIC test, and the interactive, process-learning, discourse-based English and resultant tasks that students practice (and hopefully master) in my classroom. A high score on an extracurricular, commercial examination has little connection to the contents learned and skills developed in my class. While that course is officially called 1st year Eigo Communication, it actually serves as an introduction to basic medical English discourse- and you can be sure students didn’t cover THAT on the TOEIC exam. The TOEICers haven’t gone through the process, and the process is what an interactive, COMMUNICATIVE course is all about.

Actually, neither have the transfer students. As a result, they enter general medical courses later on unfamiliar with the jargon, patterns, rhetorical style, modes of English medical discourse, what-have-you because they had an English 101 transfer credit from another university. A credit transfer from a course that had little or nothing to do with mine.

Ok. While I understand the need to grant some exemptions I wistfully recall the days when all 1st year students at my university were required to take the class- even if they were Tokyo U. graduates who had lived in the U.K. for 12 years and had TOEIC scores off the charts (and yes, we have a few students like that). Those students acted as mentors to others. They raised the bar. They raised the maturity level, the aura of seriousness in the class. They were role models. And I could still make tasks that challenged them because they were new to the whole medical discourse thing.

Some students with extensive English skills/experience do still take the Eigo Communication classes. But these tend to be younger students who lived abroad and are entering university for the first time and did not take a TOEIC exam. Naturally, there is a mixed bag. Some give off a “Been there done that” air (although the know-it-all-ism catches up with them pretty quickly). Some can be a bit too diffident in their approach to English or interactions with the teacher (the exaggerated ‘I know what students in America are like and so I’m going to affect those postures too!’ vibe). Interestingly, those who have daily-life English experience but who are still young and immature are often those most likely to start using Japanese in the classroom, poisoning the atmosphere, or be prone to putting their heads down to sleep or otherwise making ostentatious gestures of apparent indifference or boredom.( Again though, this is true of some, not the majority, of younger ‘returnees’).

I miss what the more mature, experienced students brought to the classroom. They knew how to be a student, they knew effective classroom habits, study habits, social interactions, and their influence could be felt throughout the classroom. I wish the exemptions didn’t exist. I feel like there is still a lot that my class could offer those students- but even more so there is so much that they could offer the younger students.

2. Money matters and education:

It is usually the ‘right’ thing to say something like, “We should take the money out of military spending and put it into something productive, like education” but sometimes I wonder. Have you ever visited those schools that have computer systems that could dwarf NASA’s but are used by a total of about 6 students for about 30 minutes a day each? How about those tiny, unused rooms that have state-of-the-art BlueRay setups so complex that no one at the school actually knows how to run anything more than the basic DVD program on it- and the rooms are usually locked anyway?

Getting money – or more accurately, procuring a big budget- generally just means more work for those of us at universities, since we have to preen and pose prettily for our yen in this era of semi-privatization (houjinka). These days, if you are getting grants you have to fill out several hundred elaborate forms, write dozens of interim reports, produce lushly illustrated pamphlets, lengthy account lists, follow newly-established FD protocols, and basically spend your time and energy doing things to justify having your big budget. And why carry out all this busy work? So that you can apply for the big budget again next year!!! And, frankly speaking, I’m not so sure that all of these materials we have to produce are looked at deeply by the officials who approve the funding. Sometimes I get the feeling that we could write, “We contributed the money to North Korea’s self-defence” or “We blew it all on booze and floozies” and no one would bat an eyelid (come to think of it, the latter might be considered a normal expenditure in some circles- nyark, nyark).

The treadmill goes round and round. The unfortunate thing, it seems to me, is that the expenditure-to-actual-educational-attainment ratio is negligible. Standard text books, magic markers, whiteboards and a visual display unit in classrooms should cover 95% of what teachers do (at least what English teachers do). Up to date computers and software? Yeah- for the teachers. Printers, copiers etc. too. But students seem to do 95% of what they do on their own keitais. Except for the very occasional extracurricular use of expensive E-learning software programs, on-campus computers don’t seem to get a lot of use (and I'm not just talking about my own little neck of the woods here). Now I’m not going to say that this is a waste of money. Installing a complex e-learning system probably keeps a few salesmen, business-types and factory workers employed. Keeping the money flow liquid is important in these times of economic downturn. I know that these things also lend prestige to an institution (they look good in pamphlets photos and explanations, and will inevitably be the type of room that visitors of note will be lecturing in). And I must admit that having my airfare, hotels and per diem for attending foreign conferences fully covered makes business trips doubly pleasant.

But the big question is, are we working merely to maintain budgets or to educate? OK- if that sounds a bit too St. Francis Of Assisi, meaning that it sounds like I’m heading in the direction of arguing that teachers should all impoverish themselves as servants to public service, here’s a suggestion of what to do with that extra money: Raise teachers’ base salaries! Seriously! National university professors do not make much money (and I’m sure this statement doesn’t hold true only for national university profs)! I have advanced academic degrees, 20 years’ experience teaching, and enough publications/presentations to stun an ox, but my monthly salary is equal to that of most Eikaiwa teachers I know with less than 5 years’ experience.

Don't get me wrong, I’m not pulling rank here- it’s just a fact. I myself earned more as a vocational school teacher 15 years back than I do now (cue violins). I have a friend who has been working at his school for 10 years. When his students graduate and find work their names, employers, and salaries are often made known. To his chagrin, my friend noticed that many students who joined the workforce straight out of high school were already earning more than he was- despite being a 10 year vet with a degree!

OK- Many university full-timers do get good fringe benefits. I’ll admit that. We get bonuses. Pension, insurance, health plans and housing allowances are the norm, at least at National universities. We get a retirement payment. Our study and research trips get fully paid for. The perks are quite generous. But the total is still not what you might think. The idea is, of course, that national university teachers are performing a type of public service. That’s fine- most teachers are happy to make sacrifices for the education of the students- but it still pains me to see money thrown around merely to maintain the budgetary cycle. Just like the road construction crews, the department has to spend its allotted budget in time in order to get the same funding again next year and repeat the Sisyphian task.

The end result? The feeling that my value as a worker is not so much to educate, or even to feed my family, but merely to keep the budget treadmill going.

« Two grammar puzzles; Plus- What’s so good about working at a university; Plus- the reason older Japanese professors (supposedly) teach teacher-centered lecture-based lessons revealed! | Main | The Daily Yomiuri column (and two more grammar puzzles) »


Two comments for the price of one.

1) It probably won't make you feel any better but your school is not alone it its misuse of the TOEIC. The notion that a high TOEIC is the goal of university English education has swept through the undefended minds of many Japanese professors. The IIBC, the public interest corporation in Japan that administers the TOEIC, did a survey of 724 universities in Japan and reported that at least 331 universities were using the TOEIC to award course credits and 284 were using it as an entrance criterion.

The fact that using TOEIC scores as a substitute for course work is not on the list of approved uses of the TOEIC and ETS specifically warns against such TOEIC misuse is conveniently ignored by all concerned.

2) I thought you national profs were supposed to retire at 65 and then get a job at a private university and rake it in until hitting 70.

Treb- Thanks for the numbers regarding TOEIC.

As for the 'national univ. profs retiring at 65 and raking it in until 70' business- ha ha ha ha ha. There was a time...

And I suppose for professor emeritus types, former deans, esteemed academics of note, and highly connected bigwigs that privilege still exists to some extent (legal revisions have made this a less viable option in some cases). But I'm just an obscure, humble Associate Prof. in the sticks.


Yes, the TOEIC, against all pedagogical wisdom, has become king of the hill at many J. universities, evidence, in my opinion, of the inward turn J. academia has taken upon the failure of the anemic attempt at "internationalization." This corresponds to the decline of the TOEFL and the number of students going overseas to study. I've mentioned before that one of the causes of this reversal was the economic decline beginning in the mid-90s. We fought the TOEIC as an academic requirement tooth and nail when the fad for speciously quantifiable results began and for a while had some success but when the individual who initially spear-headed this moronic movement became department head...groan.

The retirement age at some private uni's, including mine, is also 65. But there does exist, as Mike details, a kind of amakudari system at all universities. A professor may be required to retire at one university and, through his/her connections, become a visiting professor either at the original school or another where the buddy is. So, yes, they can then rake it in for several more years. This rather sleazy practice goes on quite openly and is considered just another perk common to senior faculty, though very rare among NJ profs. It's an uchi/soto thing ;)


I'd really like to ask you some questions about the TOEIC for something I'm writing. My email is treblekickeresq insert the at mark

Also, I know that my private school still hires retired national university professors regularly. My department seems to have a unwritten rule that we need at least one ex-Todai prof.

It's a pain because they get get hired as a full prof with the salary that entails even though they are at the tail end of their careers and don't contribute nearly as much as a fresh PhD.

Treb- Write to me offlist at regarding the TOEIC or TOEFL question.

Sorry for the delayed response, Treb (I was overseas for about a week).

I know that some of our more esteemed Profs end up with amakudari positions, but it doesn't extend to Associate Profs like me- that's for sure. To the best of my knowledge the reasoning behind this is that having big names on your university's roster increases the likelihood of getting grants, endowments and other types of funding. It can (artificially) help a university's ranking too and certainly makes it look more prestigious for recruiting purposes.

The practice is in some ways similar to small medical clinics using the borrowed names of well-known doctors on their rosters. Without the name-lending practice many would be in more trouble financially as it allows them to claim a certain status and categorization according to Ministry of Health regulations. The fees they pay for the name borrowing are lower than potential losses that would be incurred by re-categorization and consequent taxation, loss of legal right to carry out certain practices, and so on.

Perhaps someone can explain how largely honorary titles and roles (such as Professor Emeritus, honorary fellows and the like) impact Western universities.

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