Why Start a Pop-up University in Tokyo?

The Tokyo international community has a reputation for doing a lot more drinking than thinking. It’s time to build meaningful institutions.

This is an edited transcript of a presentation delivered on 12th July 2016.

My name’s David Willoughby and I’m the founder of Workers University as well as an occasional teacher when I need to be. So what kind of university am I talking about?

Workers University is a pop-up university in Tokyo. The pop-up part means we don’t have a campus or a permanent home. Here’s the classroom that we currently rent in Dogenzaka, Shibuya.

As you can see, we don’t have all the overheads that come with operating a campus university. That’s important and I’ll return to that point later.

Just as importantly, and I say this with great pride, Workers University is a completely fake university. It’s a 100% unofficial, fraudulently named, possibly illegal undertaking, since we have no legal basis on which to even call it a university.

But we’re a good fake university because, unlike bad fake universities, we’re not issuing worthless degrees or asking people for large sums of money. We don’t even ask our students to write 15,000 word papers that will only ever be read by two people. We’re just about getting back to the original purpose of a university, which is as a place of learning rather than an accrediting body.

But let’s not sink too deeply into that philosophical argument. Instead, let me tell you a bit about myself and where the whole idea for Workers University came from.

For much of my time in Japan, I worked as a student recruiter for British universities. That is to say, I encouraged people to invest several million yen of their family’s savings to fly to the other side of the world for one to four years and study in English, in the UK.

So you may think I’m planning to disrupt the study abroad industry by establishing a similar institution right on the students’ doorstep. Well, not really. If working in the study abroad industry has taught me anything, it’s that the ‘abroad’ part is just as important as the ‘study’.

But for people like me, we’re already getting that cultural experience by being abroad, here in Japan. Why do we need to fly back to our home countries to continue our education? That always seemed a puzzling thing to me. And let’s face it, there’s no real prospect of Japanese higher education converting en masse to the English language in the next five or even fifty years.

Let me talk about some trends that I’ve observed in Japan over the last ten years. I’m fond of travelling back to the year 2006 because that’s when I first arrived in Tokyo. Since then, I’m sure you’re familiar with the massive growth in inbound tourism, and perhaps you’ve observed signs that the foreign student population has also been growing steadily.

But I’m more interested in two other trends that have been going on beneath the radar, things that aren’t easily measured with statistics. First, we’ve seen the emergence of a global class of digital nomads who are able to work anywhere. Foreigners living in Japan are in theory no longer limited to the narrow range of jobs and industries that were open to them ten years ago.

However, the digitally nomadic way of working has been a bit slow to catch on in Japan, among both Japanese and foreign residents. There are many factors, obviously, but one is the lack of options when it comes to digital education.

At the same time, startup culture has slowly spread to the mainstream and made people question traditional models of employment. It has led to a huge amount of interest in real-world events where people get together and apply digital solutions to real-world problems.

As a result, we’ve observed quiet social revolutions like the culture of meetups. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I first started working we all used to socialise to forget about work. Now we meet up to talk about work. Meetups often have a clear educational purpose too. They could be described as an ad hoc response from society to the failures of higher education to prepare people for digital jobs.

What if we compare the meetup model with traditional education, represented here by the campus university? Above all else, the university is expensive. As well as the overheads I mentioned earlier, it exploits its monopoly on awarding degrees in order to charge its customers whatever it can get away with. It’s also inflexible as it requires students to postpone their lives for one to four years, and arguably outdated as work now changes too quickly for universities to respond.

(Of course I’m being unreasonable because universities contribute to society in many more ways that simply preparing people for corporate jobs. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that universities cultivate thinking skills, train doctors, and conduct research. But that’s not what today’s presentation is about.)

Universities are also quality-assured, while meetups aren’t. So while meetups may be free or affordable, flexible and up-to-date, the quality varies — though not at this event, which I’ve heard is always excellent.

So really, Workers University is focused on that final row in particular. How to take all the good stuff on the right (meetup culture) and deliver it with the quality that you’d expect at a university. That’s the goal.

At Workers University, we want to deliver quality-assured social learning. That means teachers who know their subject, 90-minutes classes that cover subjects with rigor and depth, and someday longer courses that provide some kind of grounding in professional knowledge, while continuing to be flexible, affordable, and learner-centric.

As there’s very little English-language education available in Tokyo, we also want to help grow that, and support other schools and organisations with similar goals.

Finally, I mentioned the rise of a class of digital nomads, part of an even bigger trend towards freelance and portfolio careers. At Workers University, we’d like to give talented freelancers in the foreign community the chance to raise their profile and earn a living. Yes, we pay our teachers the same rates as campus universities.

But let’s be clear: Tokyo doesn’t need another pitch event or talking shop. There are plenty of good ones out there. So if you know someone who’s brilliant at their job, available on Saturdays, and genuinely able to teach others rather than just promote themselves, we’d love to hear from them.

As our name suggests, we’re interested in work-related subjects. Our first seminar was on Translation for Marketers, and we have seminars coming up this month on Content Marketing and Career Planning. We also have a course called English for Workers, which is especially for non-native English speakers to get business-fluent in English.

Seminars for August and September are still undecided. We’re also interested in subjects like design, communication, and data science. But if someone has a completely original idea for a seminar, we’ll listen to that too.

Please go to our website www.workers-u.com, follow us on Facebook, and spread the word among your friends and colleagues, and together let’s build a social learning revolution in Tokyo. But as we’re a completely fake university, not a word about this to the Ministry of Education, OK?