Specialist or Generalist Education and Careers?

It’s well known in Japan that entry to good universities is fiercely competitive, and then students mess around for four years, sleeping in lectures, putting more effort into club activities than study. As a consequence, the large employers who recruit hundreds of graduates every year mainly assess applicants on character and potential, and treat new hires as “trainees” to be developed, rather than contributors.

Those graduate recruits then mostly follow a generalist career track, being switched around various businesses, functions and locations.  As you may have noted from other blog posts on the Nikkei Business series “Wake Up Japan”, many Japanese business people feel this system no longer works. So Nikkei Business took a look at the Japanese education and recruitment system, comparing it to the UK, China, France, Germany, South Korea and the USA. It concluded that the only other country out of those six that had a similar university education system to Japan was the UK.

Will the younger generations prefer more applied university degrees?

Initially I was surprised by that conclusion, but then I reflected on the discussions I’ve been having with my son, who is dithering over which university and what courses to apply for, if at all. I admit my prejudice is towards him doing a generalist degree in the social sciences at a good university, and then, once he has a better idea of what he wants to do, doing a more applied post graduate qualification.  There are applied, practice oriented degrees in the UK, but we snobbily assume they are second rate and will not lead to elite careers.

My son and others of his generation may well be rebelling against the idea of a generalist liberal arts degree at a top university, requiring eye wateringly high exam grades at 18 to enter.  He is more tempted by a digital media degree at Leeds University.  I was surprised that such a degree was offered at Leeds, which is one of the top, so-called Russell Group universities in the UK. But actually the curriculum looks fascinating, and is not just about learning coding.  Unsurprisingly, the post graduate employment rate is close to 100%.

Specialist training provided by UK companies, vs generalist track in Japanese companies

The post graduate career outcomes are different between Japan and the UK, however, the Nikkei points out. Whereas Japanese companies expect graduate recruits to stay in the company, receiving generalist “on the job training”, with the result that after 10 years, 44.5% of graduate recruits are still working at that company, the rate is only 31.6% in the UK. British companies train their recruits in more specialist skills, which are transferable to other companies. It’s not mentioned in the Nikkei article, but as I often point out, the UK also has many chartered institutes for various professions, requiring annual professional development, offering exams and qualifications.

French, Swedish and German university degrees are more specialist, teaching applied skills that can be immediately put to use in a company.  I recently spoke with two Spanish AI researchers at a Japanese company in the UK and they confirmed that the Spanish system is also to do an applied, practice oriented first degree, then if you want to explore more general theoretical aspects, to do this as a post graduate degree.The US has both types – applied degrees but also liberal arts degrees that are more generalist. Unsurprisingly, Chinese universities are focused on providing education which fits with the national strategy. They limit university entrance to 1 million people per 1% of GDP growth, so currently with 6% GDP growth, they are admitting 6 million to 7 million students a year.  Korean universities are not well evaluated, so companies look at other grades and experience, such as English language ability tests.

Impact on youth unemployment

There are some downsides to the French system however – Nikkei Business points to how the French youth unemployment rate is still around 20%, compared to 3% in Japan. They speculate that the cause of this is French companies preferring to hire experienced, skilled people, offering little in the way of internal training to support graduate recruits.

Nikkei Business concludes that there are disadvantages and merits in all the systems, and it is not obvious what changes Japan should make. If they are to follow the British path, then more professional development institutes offering training might be one strategy to follow.

Rudlin Consulting helps organizations to connect with Japanese companies operating in Europe and Japanese companies to connect with European partners. Pernille Rudlin’s latest book (available in Japanese and English) on the challenges facing Japanese companies in Europe is available on Amazon.com

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