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Universities fending off attacks on the liberal arts

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Special To The Japan Times

As discussed last week, in June the education ministry sent a directive to all 86 national universities in Japan, apparently calling on them to abolish or reorganize their humanities and social sciences departments.

I use the word “apparently” because the wording of the letter is ambiguous. Kan Suzuki, special adviser to Japan’s education minister, recently explained in Diamond magazine that the ministry failed to consult various stakeholders and admitted the new policy was not well articulated, but insists that the ministry is not moving to abolish the liberal arts. Rather, he says, the government wants the national universities to concentrate on what they do best and develop survival strategies based on market forces, budget cuts and demographic trends. But given his job, he would say that.

Fellow Japan Times contributor Takamitsu Sawa, the president of Shiga University, raised the alarm in August, asserting that liberal arts programs are being targeted due to an anti-democratic conservative ideological agenda. This view is shared by prominent Japanese academic organizations that issued statements critical of the government’s directive. Since then there has been an international storm of criticism in numerous publications and Internet discussion groups decrying this assault on the humanities and social sciences and the potentially stark implications for Japanese democracy.

In the context of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s assertive ideological policy agenda, there are deep suspicions that the proposed reforms are aimed at eliminating precisely the departments that nurture critical thinking and liberal democratic values because those graduates are more likely to oppose conservative initiatives. Will this imperil Japanese higher education and democracy? Probably not very soon, as the new reforms are more likely to spur universities to reorganize and rebrand rather than retrench and eliminate. Down the road, the ongoing shift of power from the faculty to university presidents will make it easier for the latter to impose change from above as appointment of department heads, selection of new hires and discretionary budgetary allocations will facilitate more sweeping reforms.

The competition for students and budget that is causing some national universities to revamp liberal arts programs is not necessarily affecting such programs at the top national universities that attract many applicants and sufficient funding. Nonetheless, it is apparent that winds of change have been gaining momentum throughout higher education for quite some time due to dire demographic trends. Given the oversupply of Japan’s universities — comprising 86 national universities, 90 universities run by prefectures or municipalities and 606 private institutions — consolidation is inevitable.

The shrinking pool of 18-year-olds, from 2 million in 1990 to 1.2 million in 2010, is old news for all universities as they try to attract more applicants by offering appealing programs. Only half of Japan’s high school graduates enter universities (excluding junior colleges), well below the OECD average of 62 percent and far below Australia (90 percent) and South Korea (82 percent).

Many national universities face intensified pressure to reorganize programs that dovetail with government priorities in order to secure more financial support. In the first decade of the 21st century the education ministry’s general budget support for public universities declined by nearly one-third, while an increasing proportion of such allocations are based on competitive assessments. What this means is that the ministry’s designated Global 30 universities will do fine, but smaller national ones outside major urban areas are facing tough times. Budgets are tight as in 2014 the OECD found that Japan’s public expenditures on higher education amounted to 0.5 percent of GDP, the lowest in the OECD, and less than half the average of 1.1 percent among member nations.

The QS World University Rankings for 2015/16 places five Japanese universities in the top 100: Kyoto University (38), University of Tokyo (39), Tokyo Institute of Technology (56), Osaka University (58) and Tohoku University (74). This mediocre showing — with tiny Singapore boasting two universities in the top 15, China and Hong Kong each with four in the top 100 and South Korea with three — has been a long-standing sore point, triggering national hand-wringing and an action plan. The prime minister has targeted getting 10 Japanese universities into the world’s top 100 by 2025, and hopes to do so by promoting natural sciences at the expense of liberal arts, even though most top universities maintain robust programs in both areas.

Requesting anonymity, a national university professor currently in an administrative role says he thinks the reforms won’t have much immediate impact, largely due to pushback from faculty and students. He attributes the attack on liberal arts to “idiots” in the LDP who want to stifle democracy and who “dislike the social sciences and humanities for ideological reasons.”

“I do not know why they did this in such a clumsy way to make it sound like a bunch of philistines attacking the social sciences and humanities,” he said. “Talk about bad PR.”

Bruce Stronach, dean of Temple University and former president of Yokohama City University, thinks that the controversial directive might serve a useful purpose, pointing out that many universities are in dire need of sweeping reforms to improve education and better prepare students for the demands of the 21st century.

“I think it is too simple to say that they are trying to kill the humanities and arts,” he says, “as there is a tremendous amount of evidence to demonstrate that they are trying to instill what is essentially an international liberal-arts-based educational philosophy and pedagogy in Japanese universities.”

Philip Seaton, a professor of history at Hokkaido University, is also unconvinced by caricatures of the reforms as a barbaric assault on the humanities and academic freedom, pointing out that some universities are responding by establishing new faculties and programs that meet ministry criteria, serve students and seek to boost student enrolments and revenues.

“There is a big difference between universities at which the humanities and social sciences play a key role in other strategic goals, and universities at which they are relatively isolated. For example, when they are central to an in-bound degree program or international student exchange program (which contributes to internationalization and/or rankings strategies) they are not in danger of being cut. But if the departments are providing education mostly to Japanese students and enrollment is declining, then pressures to reorganize are somewhat inevitable.”

“We have to raise our voices and let them know that the current pressure on higher education, particularly humanities and social sciences, is irrational and wrong,” says Sawako Shirahase, a professor of sociology at the University of Tokyo.

“The humanities and natural sciences are interdependent, not mutually exclusive,” says Christopher Simons, a literature professor at Tokyo’s International Christian University. “Humanities education has a bright future in Japan, but only if authorities have the courage to throw away old stereotypes and binary thinking.”

The international reputation of Japanese higher education is dismal, mirroring domestic perceptions that university is a four-year romp through “leisure land.” Such disparaging assessments are the kindling of reformist impulses.

Bottom line, can these reforms improve the poor level of education that currently prevails at too many Japanese universities? Optimism is unjustified.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.