End the grad student quotas

by Takamitsu Sawa

Starting in the 1991 academic year (April 1991 through March 1992), a number of leading national universities in Japan underwent major structural changes, led by the Law School at the University of Tokyo.

Previously, all university teachers belonged to their respective undergraduate departments and had incremental teaching jobs at the postgraduate level.

In the new system, they are affiliated with graduate schools and get the extra assignment of teaching undergraduate students. With this change, the universities receive larger budgets from the government than before to accommodate more postgraduate students.

In the 1992 academic year, the Law School of Kyoto University became the second to adopt the new system, which was followed, in whole or in part, by 16 other universities. Ripple effects also stretched to some private universities, which started to enroll greater numbers of graduate students.

Why was it that such a change started at the law schools of the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University?

An answer to this question requires a review of the circumstances surrounding their law schools.

Japan is one of the largest contributors of funds to all types of international organizations, and in return many of their posts are allocated to Japanese citizens. In reality, however, many university students have had to abandon their hopes of working at those global organizations because obtaining a master’s degree is a prerequisite to getting a job with them.

That is why the new system was introduced to the law schools of the Tokyo and Kyoto universities, where there appeared to be more students than elsewhere who were potential applicants for jobs at international organizations.

Ironically, however, a large number of those who have obtained doctoral degrees during the past 20 years since the new system was introduced are facing unprecedented difficulties in finding jobs. One-third of those Ph.D.’s are said to have found lifetime employment with academic institutes or private corporations, another one-third are working on research projects on a nonpermanent basis, while the whereabouts of the remaining one-third are unknown.

This situation resulting from the oversupply of doctoral degrees has been made all the more miserable because there are scores of applications for each opening for a university teacher. Yet, it is quite difficult to reduce the number of students pursuing doctoral degrees since the trend was established.

In the field of life sciences, large sums of research funds are provided to universities by the education ministry, the health and welfare ministry, and private companies. Since projects in this field involve substantial human resources, universities hire many postdoctoral researchers for limited lengths of time. In this sense, producing a large number of holders of doctoral degrees is a necessary condition for pushing such projects.

The trouble is that not many corporations are willing to employ researchers whose research contracts have expired.

Japanese corporations are not eager to hire Ph.D.’s because they are thought to be too specialized in their respective fields. In initiating the move to place greater emphasis on postgraduate education, the education ministry misunderstood the difference in the educational systems between Japan and the United States. At American primary and secondary schools, students are not required to pursue tightly controlled and extensive curricula like their Japanese counterparts. Once they reach university, however, they are in for four full years of cramming education.

Applicants to universities are screened on the basis of a broad spectrum of criteria, including scores on a scholastic assessment test (SAT), high school academic records, letters of recommendation from high school teachers, history of extracurricular activities, their home states, the gender and ethnicity.

American universities have no schools that correspond to schools in Japanese universities. Students are free to choose their own major and minor subjects of study. They study hard for four years and, after determining their aptitude during that period, select a postgraduate school that would best suit their professional or academic aspirations.

In short, an American is not treated as a specialist unless he has acquired a doctorate or at least a master’s degree. That’s why many international organizations require a job applicant to possess at least the master’s degree.

In Japan, on the other hand, each student, upon entering university, selects a school at the university (and in many cases, a department within the school) that they think would be most directly related to their future professional aspirations. During the ensuing four years, they go through fairly specialized curricula.

At 18, university freshmen are not capable of identifying their own aptitude. They are screened on the basis of the “deviation value,” their academic level in relation to a certain standard. They could end up wasting their whole lives if they choose to enter a school or university department that is not suited to their individual capabilities or if they lose interest in their chosen subjects.

In the 1992 academic year, the education ministry committed another mistake when it eased the regulations governing liberal arts education in the first two years of the undergraduate program. Studying a second foreign language was no longer mandatory.

Nor did it remain compulsory for students majoring in humanities to take up to three courses in natural science or for science majors to learn three courses each in humanities and social sciences.

As a result, university students in Japan are taught both basic and advanced skills in specialized fields during the whole four years. When specialized education at a graduate school is added, each doctoral student spends nine years — about one third of their entire life up to that time — receiving specialized training.

It is no wonder that Japanese corporations are not anxious to hire those with doctoral degrees, because by the time they have finished their academic studies, they are already too old by corporate standards for entry-level positions, their view of things are narrow and they are not viewed as immediate assets for the corporations.

By looking back at what has taken place, I believe that the education ministry, when it decided to give a greater role to graduate schools, should have abolished various schools within universities, and reformed both the primary and secondary education in line with the American system. Primary, secondary and higher education form one whole system. But the ministry failed to recognize this and committed the mistake of merely changing the postgraduate portion of the system.

The education ministry also tried to imitate the United States when it created a large number of graduate schools to train professionals. Its aim of establishing so many new law graduate schools was to make it easier for young students with legal aspirations to pass the bar examinations. The United States has about 1.2 million attorneys at law, far outnumbering some 27,000 in Japan. The difference is significant even when seen against the background of the U.S. population being three times Japan’s population.

When the ministry started creating new graduate law schools, it sought to enable 3,600 young men and women to pass the bar exams every year.

Due to opposition from the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, however, the actual number has been limited to around 2,000. Even so, not all those who pass the bar exam can find jobs in the legal profession. That has forced no small number of them to engage in other jobs not directly related to legal affairs, such as secretaries on policy matters to Diet members. Ordinary citizens in Japan do not rely on services of lawyers as often as in other countries and many never meet with a lawyer in their lives.

The education ministry must be held responsible for haphazardly increasing the supply of lawyers by falsely forecasting a rise in demand for them.

It is far easier to pass the entrance exam for a graduate school than it is for undergraduate courses in Japan. On top of this, when the education ministry approves the establishment of a new department at a graduate school, it sets the number of students to be accommodated and demands that the number be filled.

As a result, a graduate school admits students not entirely on the basis of their aptitude and sometimes accepts unfit students to fill the quota. This has caused a drastic deterioration of the quality of graduate students.

Because a university is not allowed to adjust the number of graduate students even when they outnumber potential job opportunities, this will inevitably create a serious oversupply of graduate students.

The education ministry must abolish the prescribed number of students to be accommodated at each graduate school and let universities independently assess the job situation to eradicate the imbalance between supply of graduate students and demand for them.

Takamitsu Sawa is president of Shiga University, Japan.