Japan’s university education crisis

by Gregory Clark

Education minister Makiko Tanaka has apologized for trying to cancel approvals given by her ministry bureaucrats for three institutions seeking to operate as fully fledged four-year universities providing undergraduate degrees. But should she have apologized?

There is a crisis in Japanese tertiary education. Student numbers decline while the number of approved universities increases relentlessly — by almost 100 in the last 10 years. Some 45 percent of private universities cannot fill the student number quotas set by Education Ministry (MEXT); this year 18 of them could not even reach half their quota. In desperation many will accept almost anyone who applies, provided they have a pulse as the saying goes. Some have already gone bankrupt. More will follow.

Some argue that if there is a demand for four-year tertiary education, why try to block new institutions seeking to provide it. But that only makes sense if, as in the West, universities can use tough curricula and exams to weed out unsuitable students. In Japan, failing students goes against the communalistic ethic, and against the law to some extent. It also cuts university income.

So the bureaucrats end up degrading the entire education system here by approving yet another bunch of institutions seeking to provide four years of fairly shallow education to students who do not need it, who cannot handle it and who may not even want it. Even the elite universities suffer the contagion.

It is here that Tanaka could have done something useful. Two of the institutions she tried to block were tanki daigaku — short-term (two year) universities (the third was a nurse-training operation). Tanki daigaku usually do no more than provide the vocational training or basic general education needed for run-of-the-mill employment. They should not even be called universities. So not surprisingly it is they that have been worst hit by the decline in undergraduate student numbers.

To attract students they now want the prestige of being able to call themselves four-year universities, but often with only minimal efforts to improve teaching quality. As such they compete for students with the established four-year universities and add to the general decline in tertiary education here. They also make a further claim on the national resources used to promote university studies.

One of those two institutions trains young people in preschool education. To exaggerate somewhat, does anyone really need a four-year degree course to qualify for diaper changing? A sensible education minister would insist that many of these so-called universities go back to calling themselves the vocational or community colleges that they really are.

Instead, we see the media indulge in their favorite sport of Makiko-bashing. She got hit for her efforts to clean up Japan’s diplomatic corruption and laziness when made foreign minister under the Koizumi regime in 2001. Now they want to nail her for causing fuss and loss to the three applicant institutions. Japan does not like people who cause fuss, it seems.

Many of these two-year or newly minted four-year universities try to increase their appeal by emphasizing what is called international education, mainly in the form of increased English-language teaching. But ability to operate internationally cannot come from a few force-fed classes in basic English. In a recent powerful article (Nikkei Weekly, Nov. 5), the Japanese physicist credited with discovering the diodes needed for LED appliances, professor Shuji Nakamura, now based at the University of California, Santa Barbara, points out that advanced research today is almost impossible for people who cannot work fluently in English and understand Western systems. The same qualities are now needed for many other forms of international activity. Nakamura pointed out how the best Chinese and Korean students now reach these standards. Japanese students do not.

Instead of simply adding to the army of second-rate universities in Japan trying to survive by further dumbing down the system, Japan’s education bureaucrats should be trying to focus on the specialized education needed to bring graduates up to those top global levels urged by Nakamura-sensei. The recent emphasis on post-graduate studies here in Japan is not enough. Unless universities are drastically reformed it will simply add to the glut of unemployable M.A.s and Ph.D.s.

Arming students with the linguistic and academic abilities for advanced study abroad, as with many of those Chinese and Korean students, should be the first priority. Tanaka’s admittedly impromptu efforts to start to clean up the system deserved praise, not brickbats.

Gregory Clark, former president of Tama University and a trustee of Akita International University, is author of “Why Japanese Education Will Not Change” (in Japanese from Toyo Keizai). A Japanese translation of this article will appear at www.gregoryclark.net