Oversupply, falling birthrate threaten implosion in higher education system

by William Hollingworth

Kyodo

Japan’s higher education system faces “an implosion” due to oversupply and a falling birthrate, according to research from a British academic.

Roger Goodman, a Japan expert from Oxford University, said the situation will make it increasingly difficult for the less prestigious and smaller establishments to remain operating.

Many institutions — estimates range from as high as 40 percent to as low as 15 percent — will go bankrupt, merge or be taken over within the decade, according to Goodman.

He wrote, “The Japanese higher education system is facing a contraction, possibly better described as an implosion, of a type not previously ever seen before.”

Despite a big increase in the 1990s in the number of institutions of higher education, which made it easier for students to get a place, some universities are now struggling to fill their quotas.

Goodman believes the crisis will lead to a growing “polarization” in higher education, with demand for lower-level universities declining dramatically.

He said this has been shown by findings that show those establishments with high entrance scores have maintained their competition for places. Institutions with lower scores have seen demand fall.

“While Japan’s leading national universities will continue to be protected by state support and the leading private universities by their reputation and alumni networks, rural public and local universities and lower-level private universities face a bleak future, if indeed they have a future at all,” he said.

“Private universities rely, for example, on student fees for around 80 percent of their annual income on average.”

He argued that the less prestigious universities have been forced to reduce their entry requirements in order to maintain their numbers.

Lower-ranking universities will have to continue attracting overseas students to maintain their financial health.

Goodman noted that the “tanki daigaku,” or two-year junior colleges, are particularly vulnerable, although some have made their courses more vocational in an effort to attract more students.

In a rather pessimistic outlook, he said, “There is little evidence that the vast majority of the lower-level, private four-year universities will be able to rise to meet the demographic challenges that currently face them.

“The government has made it clear that, as with many banks, it has no intention of bailing them out.”

And Japanese institutions will find it hard to fill the spare places with more postgraduate, mature and part-time students, as has been the case in the West, Goodman noted.

This is partly because Japanese firms prefer recruiting those who are young and can be molded in the ways of the company more easily.

In Japan, there are also fewer housewives going to college after bringing up children.

Goodman, who is a professor specializing in anthropology and will be the next head of Oxford’s social sciences division, argued that struggling Japanese universities should look to alternative sources of income by undertaking more research projects and raising endowments.

One way of attracting more students, Goodman said, is to conduct more lectures in English and employ more foreign staff.

“We are likely to see increased competition for funding leading to a higher quality of teaching and research. We are also likely to see a vigorous and open discussion about what is the role of higher education in Japan, and a serious challenge to the notion that it is primarily a site for social rather than intellectual or vocational development,” he noted.

Goodman’s work will be published in March in “The Demographic Challenge: A Handbook about Japan.”

Japan’s demographic decline has been particularly marked. The second postwar baby boom peaked at 2.05 million in 1992 and then began a steady decline of some 31.2 percent in numbers to around 1.41 million in 2004.