Tuning into the changing face of higher education


Japan’s universities are at a crossroad. The notion has been voiced in some quarters for many years, but now — by common consent — the fact of the matter is impossible either to deny or to ignore.

Why now, you ask? After all, commentators have long been telling those still interested in listening that, as graduating from university is a simple matter compared to the rigors of getting in the first place, many students hardly bother to study at all.

And that some teachers simply repeat the same lectures year after year until they retire, with no evaluation from students or anyone else to shatter their complacency.

Then there’s that whole business of the country’s education system failing to foster independent thought . . .

The list goes on. Yet, though long agonized over, these criticisms have never before been taken so seriously by so many.

But now, reforms have become unavoidable as the continually falling birthrate has thrown the system into crisis due to a continually growing shortage of students.

Statistics show the population of 18-year-olds is plummeting — 1.51 million in 2001 compared with 2.04 million 10 years ago — while the percentage of high school-leavers wanting to go on to higher education has shown no marked change. The upshot is that for the first time in their 120-year history, Japan’s universities have entered an era of competition — competition that will only become harsher as, by 2009, the number of 18-year-old applicants is set to equal university enrollment capacity.

Financially, it is a nightmare, as tuition fees make up about 70 percent of the revenue of the nation’s 512 private universities. In fact, in the current academic year, 28 percent of the 506 institutions surveyed failed to meet their enrollment capacity, according to the Promotion and Mutual Aid Corporation for Private Schools of Japan.

Meanwhile, the 99 national universities face further pressure to reform themselves as — in accordance with government plans to streamline national institutions — they may be transformed into special corporate bodies. These universities, whose budgets have always been underpinned by the education ministry, will then find their support linked to strict, third-party evaluations of their academic performance.

Rather like the banks, with some universities and colleges surely facing meltdown, just what reform efforts are they making?

Some are introducing new courses and classes — “international,” “information” and “welfare” are common buzzwords here; some are forming consortiums so students can accumulate credits from several institutions; and some are opening their doors to students from a wider cross-section of society, including businesspeople, seniors, housewives and overseas applicants.

However, it is still too early to see how these measures will change universities, not least in terms of the quality of education they deliver.

Certainly, recent scandals involving top bureaucrats in the Foreign Ministry, the Finance Ministry and the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry have sharply questioned the assumption that Japan’s top universities can be relied on to produce its social elites. Though a degree from, say, Todai (the University of Tokyo) has never entirely equated with “elite,” the idea that “Todai is the top” has long gone virtually unquestioned — in part because of the history of universities in this country.

What was to become Todai was established by the Meiji government in 1877, with its name changed later to Teikoku Daigaku (Imperial University). Then, it was charged with research and education “to meet the needs of the country,” with its law department in particular serving as an institution to produce elite bureaucrats.

Hence, Todai and the country’s six other Imperial Universities were effectively the source of its top intellectuals in all fields. So it is that, although the Imperial University system was abolished after World War II, those same six institutions (that are now classified as national universities) are still widely regarded as being the best.

Yet in the state of flux that is now this state’s higher education, even these cherished assumptions may be set to change.

On one hand, some companies have begun to screen applicants without asking which university they have graduated from. On the other hand, more young people are skeptical of a route to happiness that supposedly runs from a top university to a job for life at a top company.

Indeed, with the number of so-called freeters (young working people with no permanent job) having tripled since 1982 to hit 1.5 million in 1997, according to the latest official figures, it seems the whole system is becoming less relevant to more people all the time.

So, Japan’s universities really are at a crossroad.

Where are they going? What are university teachers, Japanese students and overseas students really thinking about their lives on campus?

Here, Sunday Timeout tunes into voices from the nation’s campuses, its bureaucrats and the business world, to give a first-person “Schools Report” for Japan in 2002.