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When Ignorant People Run Universities

The Japanese National Center Test for University Admissions system is a highly-controlled, meticulous affair. Administrators are hyper-cognizant about removing any potential claims to unfairness in a noble attempt to maintain the all-important notion of university entrance being based solely on merit. For example, several years back, yours truly was denied a role on the committee simply because I had a son who was within three years of high school graduation. Maintaining its integrity is a central part of the social fabric of trust in this country.


This attention to detail in the name of fairness extends to individual university entrance exam committees. Members are not allowed to reveal their roles to the general public. Exam contents cannot be sent via email to fellow committee members — even the discussion of a single test item – only direct transfer by thumbdrive is acceptable. Manuals for making and administrating the national and second-stage exams are notorious for being as thick as small town phone books, covering any eventuality (‘If a candidate is abducted by aliens during the examination…’) so that the sanctity of the process is fully maintained.


Unless you are a woman who wants to enter medical school, that is.


(These actions) not only damage the individuals affected, but undermine public trust


Many readers will be familiar with Tokyo Medical University’s admission that they had gerrymandered the scores of several female candidates in order to ensure that a certain number of lower-scoring males were admitted. Later, several more universities were found to have also engaged in similar activities, activities that not only damage the individuals affected, but undermine public trust. (This scandal was widely reported across Asia – every doctor I’ve met in Thailand, Myanmar, and Vietnam is aware of it – which thereby places a black mark on the Japanese medical/education professions).


The reasons given were laughable. One university spokesperson argued that women are more composed and have better verbal acuity than men at that age and therefore have an unfair advantage.




Let’s just think about that for a second now, shall we? In essence, the argument presented here is that some candidates are superior to others, which makes it ‘unfair’. Now, composure and communicative skills are surely qualities we would want in medical professionals but apparently the rationale is to penalize those (allegedly) having such skills because… well, because… because they are better candidates. And women to boot. In short, let’s penalize people for being competent. How about penalizing for having superior intelligence too? After all, that’s not… fair.


The forces we are seeing at play here actually constitute an ironic type of affirmative action. Men are presumed to somehow be naturally disadvantaged so their scores have to be artificially propped up – in the dubious name of ‘fairness’. This is rather insulting, even to males. Moreover, even though it is individuals that one is admitting to universities, and it is individual doctors with whom we will interact in the future, the alleged advantageous qualities are being applied across the gender board. In other words, a process that should reward competent individual candidates has become subject to the prejudices of gender identity politics.


(National universities are) completely unable to penalize by gender


Let me go off on a slight tangent now. When I first heard of the scandal my initial thought was, ‘How would the graders even know whether the candidates are male or female?’ After all, on National University entrance exams (the scandal-ridden entities are, to the best of my knowledge, all private) the gender and personal identity of the candidate is completely unknown, and unknowable, to evaluators. Scores are entered into the data base immediately upon calculation and rankings formed, still without reference to gender.


Granted, there is a subsequent interview session in which separate teams of evaluators assess the candidates face-to-face, but, since this is done immediately after the paper test, there is no way that the evaluators can yet know which female or male candidates are on the scoring ‘hot seat’ and therefore they would be completely unable to penalize by gender, to have a specific female candidate’s score magically drop below that of a specific male applicant. Moreover, interview results do not affect raw test scores. Apparently private universities don’t utilize these safeguards.


Anyway, the second reason given was that women are far more likely to quit the medical profession or take on a less prominent role due to wishes to become a mother or raise a family.


This is actually true. I’ve worked with medical students and doctors for over twenty years (my wife is also a doctor) and a large number of female physicians do decide that they don’t want the heavy (and often oppressive) responsibilities of full-time doctorhood and choose instead to focus upon motherhood and families. (One male head-of-department physician I talked to also said he preferred male doctors under his authority because, ‘Men are simple’ – meaning ‘pliant’. Take that for what it’s worth.)


They didn’t even get the chance to make that choice!


This, it was argued, negates the value (time, effort, and money) invested in such female doctors, often leaving understaffed departments with even greater shortages. But here’s the rub – the choice to pursue raising a child or family is an individual choice. It is made by an individual (usually in conjunction with their partner) after they have entered the service because of particular circumstances (one of these often being that medical institutions don’t make enough allowances to make full-time work be attractive to those who also choose to pursue raising children).


However, those women who had their scores artificially lowered merely because of their gender didn’t even get the chance to make that choice!  It was attributed to them across the board as a class only because of their gender – in other words, the decision makers are guilty of using identity politics to inform policy.


If at first you don’t succeed… give up!


The prejudices actually went deeper. Repeat test-takers (regardless of gender) were also found to have been identified and had their scores artificially lowered in favour of ‘fresh’ candidates. In other words, students who showed the gumption to try again after failing the year before, those who had learned from their previous shortcomings (or had just had a bad day or an unfavorable test previously), and made the necessary effort and improvement to succeed, qualities that one would think admirable in someone hoping to enter the healthcare profession, were also discriminated against. If at first you don’t succeed… give up! This is the underlying message.


Unless you are female of course, in which case you might not succeed because of your chromosomes.


So much for maintaining the integrity of the meritocracy.


(Shameless self-promotion department — I have recently written a 2nd novel that may be of interest to readers. ‘The Aggrieved Parties’ can be found here.)

Mike Guest

Mike Guest

Michael (Mike) Guest is Associate Professor of English in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Miyazaki (Japan). A veteran of 25 years in Japan, he has published over 50 academic papers, 5 books (including two in Japanese), has been a regular columnist in the Japan News/Yomiuri newspaper for 13 years, and has performed presentations and led workshops and seminars in over 20 countries. Besides ranting and raving, his academic interests include medical English, discourse analysis, assessment, teacher training, and presentation skills.
Mike Guest

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2 Responses to When Ignorant People Run Universities

  1. Absolutely right!
    You really touched the nerve ; thanks for this enlightening article.

  2. Thanks Kenji.

    One thing I’d like to emphasize to readers is that the people who orchestrated this caper should not be conflated with Japanese culture or the Japanese in general. Both social and mainstream media here condemned the acts in no uncertain terms.

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