New school of thought

Matthew Wilson, dean of Temple University, Japan, on how education will shape Tokyo’s tomorrow

In 2020 Matthew Wilson completed the grandest of university homecomings. A quarter of a decade after studying law at Temple University, Japan he returned to the country’s oldest and largest foreign university as the new dean.

Wilson’s return was driven by a desire to help Japan establish an international education system that will power it into a brighter future. “For Japan to get where it wants to go, I think there needs to be more of an outward-looking approach to education,” he says. With a quarter of Temple’s undergraduates studying international business, Wilson is particularly keen to see Tokyo reclaim its status as a global financial hub which it saw slip after the financial crisis in 1991. “With Hong Kong changing I think now is a prime time for Tokyo to take back some of its real estate,” he says. “Japan is stable from a business perspective and as a society, so I think the financial sector will look at Tokyo as a potential opportunity. But education is key.”

“For Japan to get where it wants to go, I think there needs to be more of an outward-looking approach to education”

Wilson is keen for Temple, which is already ranked by Times Higher Education as one of the top 350 universities in the world, to lead the charge. “How do we educate global citizens?” he asks. “Part of it is language, but there’s so much more than that. Skills-based learning, creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship… How do you empower women? How do you teach cultural competencies? I really see it as our role in Japan to address some of those questions.”

Wilson thinks the first step is to challenge the norms of Japanese education. “We need to get past the traditional approach of just pure lecturing and instead turn students into problem solvers,” he says. “Today if you’re saying to a student, ‘memorize a piece of information’, the student’s going to think, ‘Why? I can Google that’. We need to not focus on memorization, we need to be focusing on how you find information, how you determine the veracity of the information and then how you can apply it. I’m excited about this disruption in higher education because we need to advance – education today has to be different today than it was ten years ago.”

Wilson has seen the Covid-19 pandemic speed up the rate of change and cites the willingness to embrace remote learning as an example – although he warns there is only so far that the virtual world can take you. “Online instruction plays a role, it makes education more accessible, makes it borderless, but you still have to have an in-person component,” he says. “Students need to learn about relationships, how the dynamic of a group works, how you solve conflict… Going entirely online is never going to be a solution.” Covid has also impacted the number of Japanese students looking to study abroad, which is where Wilson thinks international institutions such as Temple can play a role. “We want to create a study abroad-like experience in Japan. To offer some of the same benefits in terms of cultural awareness and language skills, but here in Tokyo.”

“There’s an appetite now to do things differently”

Wilson also sees an opportunity for universities and private institutions to work together to make it easier for foreign students to stay in Tokyo after they graduate and become part of a dynamic new workforce. “When I came to Japan, I loved it almost immediately,” he says. “It was really just contagious, and that’s what we see with our students that come from overseas. They want to find a job here, but they face some obstacles. For example, Japanese companies are still very traditional, hiring in one big intake starting on April 1st. The international academic year ends in May, so right there you have a disconnect between Japan and the rest of the world.”

Wilson thinks that our collective experience of the pandemic will be the catalyst for the changes he wants to see. He is currently discussing new ways for Temple to work with corporations to provide students with experience of the Japanese workplace and with the country’s traditional universities to bridge the two worlds. “I have had more conversations with people in Japan about collaborating in the last two and a half months than I’ve had probably in the last 10 years,” he says. “There’s an appetite now to do things differently.”