Former education minister calls for better-educated university lecturers

Many more professors at Japanese universities should obtain doctorates and become internationally competitive so as to encourage foreign students to seek degrees from Japanese universities, former Education Minister Akito Arima said Monday.

Citing the case of the University of Tokyo, considered the most prestigious university in Japan, Arima said many professors in the university’s law, economics and other faculties do not even hold doctorate degrees.

“There are foreign scholars and students who come to Japan to study at Japanese universities. But they soon regret this so much that they have to return to their own countries without obtaining their doctorates. This is my main and strongest complaint,” the 69-year-old nuclear physicist told reporters at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo.

Under the current law, the prerequisite for serving as a university professor is a doctorate degree or ability equal to possessing the degree, explained Arima, who served as president of the University of Tokyo from 1989 to 1993.

Arima’s problem is with the equivalent ability clause, he said, adding: “I want to see this pattern eliminated. All professors must have doctorates.”

Arima, who is now a member of the House of Councilors, criticized the fact that the government spent only 0.5 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product on education, saying the figure is much smaller than in other developed countries.

The United States, for example, spent 1.1 percent of its GDP on education, the Netherlands 1.2 percent and Sweden 1.5 percent, he said.

“We have called on central and local governments to increase the budget for education, particularly to support the funding of private universities, where 77 percent of university students in Japan study,” he said.

Another problem facing Japanese universities is that the number of people obtaining doctorates in applied sciences such as engineering is much greater than the number holding doctorates in basic science, such as physics.

“This indicates that applied science is more appreciated in Japan than basic science, whereas those obtaining Ph.Ds in basic science far outnumber those with engineering doctorates in the United States, Britain and other Western countries,” he said.

Arima also expressed concern over the decline in the number of students attending vocational high schools over the past 30 years as more and more junior high school graduates have opted to attend high schools to prepare for entering university.

“About 41 percent of those at high school went to vocational schools in the 1960s. In those days, the quality of technicians was very good,” he said.

But the quality of vocational high schools declined and they became unpopular, which resulted in a fall in the number of good technicians, he said, noting that only about 20 percent of high school students attend them today.

“I believe certain kinds of accidents — like the failures in launching rockets or faults in tunnel walls on the West Japan Railway Co.’s Sanyo Shinkansen Line — might have been caused by the low quality of technicians,” Arima said.

By way of example, he cited 1999’s accident at a uranium-processing facility in Tokaimura, Ibaraki Prefecture, which occurred just before Arima stepped down as education minister.

“The three workers who caused this accident graduated from vocational schools,” he said without elaboration.