Subsidies used as carrot to prod national universities to streamline, ditch humanities


Staff Writer

In a move that has angered academics, the Abe administration plans to reform the national university system by telling schools to abolish departments in fields deemed less useful to the industrial world, such as the humanities, and provide more “practical” education to win a greater share of the subsidies, which account for a combined 40 percent of their revenue.

The universities have criticized the move as an attempt by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to do away with courses of study that are not known for producing immediate and visible achievement, but are nevertheless considered equally important to higher education.

Monday evening’s draft of the latest version of “Abenomics,” the prime minister’s three-pronged economic growth strategy, says an important role of national universities is “to build a system to produce human resources that match the needs of society by grasping accurately changes in industrial structure and employment needs.”

On June 8, the education ministry issued a “nonbinding” notice, instructing 90 state-funded universities and research institutes to submit a rough draft of their streamlining plans for the six-year reformation period for national universities starting in April 2016 by the end of the month. The ministry will monitor the progress made on the plans each year and allocate the subsidies accordingly.

The state subsidies are critical to universities. According to the ministry, the government allocated ¥1.09 trillion in subsidies to 90 universities and research facilities for fiscal 2015, accounting for 44.4 percent of their combined revenue.

The University of Tokyo received the biggest amount, ¥80.3 billion, followed by Kyoto University with ¥53.0 billion.

For the reformation period, the ministry has made it clear that it intends to concentrate funding in universities that are active in pursuing drastic reform.

The universities should set a “strategic, ambitious midterm goal and plan” with specific goals and road maps, the ministry’s notice said.

Specifically, it said national universities should reorganize, including by abolishing their humanities departments, and place more emphasis on fields that have greater demand in society as the population of 18-year-olds continues to dwindle.

While acknowledging that humanities departments are not suited for producing short-term results that benefit industries and businesses, they shouldn’t be abolished immediately just for that reason, said Masayuki Kobayashi, a professor at the University of Tokyo who studies higher education in Japan.

The benefits of humanities research “should be considered in the long term,” Kobayashi said, pointing out that reviving academic disciplines in the field is difficult because it takes a long time to accumulate such knowledge and nurture competent professors.

Susumu Satomi, president of Japan Association of National Universities, also expressed misgivings, saying he was “deeply worried if the world might be in haste to pursue an immediate achievement” even though the mission of universities is to nurture human resources who can contribute to significant achievements in the future.

Nevertheless, Kobayashi said national universities, especially the smaller ones, will have no option but to acquiesce to the ministry’s requests or face a decrease in funding. He said the ministry should be careful in trying to manipulate schools with subsidies.

Given the fierce opposition, an education ministry official said that the notice is aimed at urging national universities to decide on their own how to reorganize to cater to the needs of a fast-changing society.

“Terminating humanities programs is indeed one possibility if that doesn’t match people’s contemporary needs,” said the official, who did not want to be named due to ministry policies.

The idea is actually being pushed by the powerful Finance Ministry, which is trying to refill Japan’s debt-ridden national coffers via the education ministry.

Compared with the United States, Japan has fewer dynamic businesspeople, such as venture capitalists, lawyers well-versed in intellectual property rights and corporate leaders with adequate management skills, said Makoto Fujishiro, a Finance Ministry bureaucrat who was in charge of the education budget, said in 2008.

“Because there are few educational facilities that nurture such human resources in Japan, the nation should allocate more financial resources to them,” Fujishiro said in an interview with the government-funded Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry, the transcript of which was posted on its website.

“We need to reallocate financial resources from (academic) fields that don’t necessarily match the needs of society to new fields (with greater need),” said Fujishiro. “It’s a scrap-and-build scheme.”

If institutions want taxpayer money, they need to come up with a valid argument for why they qualify, he said.

Abe agrees.

“Rather than deepening academic research that is highly theoretical, we will conduct more practical vocational education that better anticipates the needs of society,” Abe said at the keynote speech for the council meeting of Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in May 2014.

  • kyushuphil

    Doesn’t matter.

    The humanities have been dead in Japanese schools for years. Group regimentation practices have required it.

    When Japanese students join in the death wish of group activity only, the human element has already died one major death.

    Further death comes in the form of all those in all those social science departments who years ago stopped reading novels, stopped seeing films, stopped listening to music. We know this from the massive display in wonk lit that no one ever references anything from any of the humanities.

    Maybe the Japanese have already heard, via Citizens United in the U.S., that the mere human now must subordinate itself to the corporate — to measures of all life that are only metric, numbered, rank-&-filed, commodified.

    Japanese schools have well taught all never to ask any questions — just have the girls out of school dress as babies, and everyone else glom unto the infantile literacy of the tech world.

    Humanities? Does anyone know what Minae Mizumura wrote about this?

    • ChbiM

      You may say that, but there is some excellent humanities research taking place in Japanese universities at the moment. Not everybody becomes a drone.

      • kyushuphil

        OK. I’ll bite.

        You see some positives — I’m all for them, whenever they may pop up. That’s why our humanities may be useful. Even if just a few great poems, films, novels, songs, they may live and give life widely.

        So what do you see specifically coming from this “excellent humanities research” you see “taking place in Japanese universities at the moment”?

        A month ago Kaori Shoji reported here that 70% of Japanese guys in the twenties are totally locked into group imaginations only. Which of the “humanities research” you cite may help free so many of so much salaryman-crowd-conformity?

        There was great uproar here in Japan several years ago when Minae Mizumura’s book appeared in Japanese on the massive decline in the humanities here. But now it’s just out in an English translation, from Columbia U Press: “The Fall of Language in the Age of English.”

        Does some of that “humanities research” you see in Japanese universities address the issues she has raised?

      • ChbiM

        People who are locked in “group imaginations” and “salaryman-crowd-conformity” are like that because of the way they are educated at school, not university. It’s a legacy of bukatsu and undou-kai. Humanities curricula often pull students out of that mindset. They certainly do with us. I don’t know any individuals who could be classed under those stereotypes, certainly not from the high-level universities I’ve dealt with.

        There is some excellent research going on which does have a strong impact potential for modern society, if governments were willing to take notice. One guy’s research is essential to understanding how the Meiji period and the era of westernization formed the society which presents us with so many problems now. One researcher I know, focussing on immigrant history, has identified issues in the integration process which has implications for the way immigration could be handled in future by all governments. There is a scholar of Asian-American studies who has engaged with many issues relating to Japanese Americans which have a direct impact on their lives now and on their relationship to Japan. I know archeologists who are helping to preserve Japan’s deep history. Essential and useful subjects such as child psychology, geography, and also education also frequently fall under humanities.

        And although humanities does not exist solely, as some think, to teach foreign languages, there are some excellent linguistics and also literary scholars around, who have studied in the best institutions in the world, and who are bringing that knowledge back to Japan. Unfortunately, we are failed by a school system where ridiculously large class sizes and rote methods equip students poorly for future study, but that is not the fault of university departments, who have, in fact, been publishing research on appropriate educational methods for years which has not been heeded in schools.

        I don’t know about other people’s students, but our students are not salarymen drones. I find many of them very independent thinkers. They are often made to shut up when they get into the workplace, but this is the fault of poor workplace practices, not of poor education at university.

        When the school system is less regimented, and when workers have rights to proper treatment at work, fair hours, and fair pay, the “salaryman crowd conformity” will abate. Then the universities will have much more scope to increase the knowledge base of the nation. Until that happens, no discipline, humanities, engineering, medicine or any other, will be able to realize the full potiential that students have.

      • ChbiM

        By the way, as far as languages are concerned, the Japanese children at my son’s international kindergarten were becoming fluent towards the age of 5 or 6 – even those whose parents who could not speak English. If they are serious about languages in Japan, it has to start at kindergarten. The classes have to be small, and done on an international-school style model.

        If it’s more important to do spend huge amounts of time doing sports days and group-affirming activities, forget the kokusai-ka and the idea of having a linguistically able nation.

      • kyushuphil

        I wonder if you’ll entertain another Q?

        Is there any way you can measure, gauge, evaluate how often your humanities colleagues make references to novels, films, poems, songs, and other “humanities”?

        That is, within their immediate areas of concern, how often might they venture parallels, connections, perspectives with or from other arts?

        Perhaps there’s no way to answer this except anecdotally. But I fear a large-scale reduction of allusions.

        Good to see you’ve a son in kindergarten. I volunteer for one, too — love to see how open the kids yet are to all sensations, all around them. Unlike too many adults.

      • ChbiM

        There is interdisciplinary work going on at the moment. The most obvious crossover work is in history/literature, linguistics/literature and sociology/literature, of course. But interdiscipliniarity isn’t just happening within faculties. For example, I recently saw a joint research project which included individuals from humanities, law, economics and commerce, and there are others. There should be much, much, more, and the Ministry of Education should be encouraging it. It would be good to see more interconnection between medical disciplines and humanities, for example.

        The trend in the rest of the world is towards interdisciplinary research. Trashing whole faculties will do nothing to get Japan and its research onto the international stage.

      • kyushuphil

        Yes, but how often do people reference “others”?

        Years ago, I was the first person in the history of all the universities of central Europe to have a project where students could always hear representative cultural figures from 1) their home country (Hungary); 2) the West (one semester an American, the next, an English woman; and 3) bi-weekly revolving guests from former countries of the then-recently-deceased Soviet bloc.

        Students wrote wonderful essays combining all they saw, heard, and read. They read each other’s essays and in subsequent essays also quoted each other.

        But the guests all spoke without reference to each other or to the students and their essays.

        It’s been my goal since to have profs model better acknowledgement of, enjoyment of, use of each other.

        But I find most all — even those venturing into the “interdiscipline” — unable to rouse themselves out of the tunnel visions most acquire. And to go that extra step and indulge subordinate clauses full of humanities’ apt connections? Near impossible.

        And yet, if we look at the world’s originator of the essay, Montaigne, we see almost all his sentences brimming with references to the classics, architecture, landscape, music, poetry, and other arts of his day.

        How’d we get so sunk in such docile, limited literacy?

      • Oliver Mackie

        Totally agree.

      • kyushuphil

        Thank you for your well–detailed answer.

        I can only respect your insistence on the positive, because you experience so much of it, as you say.

        I hope The Japan Times will publish a good length review of the new, English version of Minae Mizumura’s “The Fall of Lanugage in the Age of English,” especially given her views so contrary to yours.

        We’d all benefit by a wider range of good souls weighing in on their experience, too, in various educational settings. The invasive force of (American-led, TPP-surely-only-to-worsen) materialism calls forth so much more from those beleaguered humanities — fine as they may be in your immediate presence, or among your good peers.

  • Liars N. Fools

    A beautiful country is one in which its citizenry must not think too much. If they think too much, they may slip the noose of orthodox thinking that Shimomura Hakubun wishes to instill at the request of Abe Shinzo.

  • Ron NJ

    Devil’s advocate: Let’s be real here, Japan never substantially contributed a lot to the global advancement of humanities studies anyways, and if Japanese universities drop humanities entirely, they can still (along with the rest of the non-Western world) continue to ride on the coattails of Western institutions of higher education who do support the humanities and continue to support fields which don’t directly contribute to a country’s bottom line – because Western civilization intrinsically values humanistic advancement for humanity’s sake, not just that of the bottom dollar (or yen).

    • kyushuphil

      “. . . intrinsically?”

      Delicious, Ron.

      Please, with your idealized view of Western civ, begin to count the number of times social scientists, policy makers, journalists, and pundits actually draw on this great “intrinsic” pool.

      Count the references they make to characters in novels, plots in film, tropes in poems, metaphors in songs. Count how often you actually see good parallels made between events of our day and apt humanities that may connect to them.

      I fear you’ll have to admit we’re living in a swamp of wonk speak, not that great “intrinsic” fount you trust always to be flowing.

  • zer0_0zor0

    Japan’s history and unique cultural developments need to be studied so they can be preserved and passed on for further cultivation by future generations of Japanese (and perhaps other) students.

    This is a ludicrous utilitarian assault on cultivation of knowledge, and self-cultivation, which is highly valued in Edo period Confucian thought, such as that of Ogyu Sorai.

    • ChbiM

      It’s a kind of cultural cleansing. The government is tryng to impose its own idea of culture and erase all competing ideas. Goodness knows what will happen to libraries, museums, theatres and other cultural properties if the humanities faculties go down. There’s something about the destruction of liberal arts that puts me in mind of the museums now being blown up in the Middle East, also by people who want to push their idea of what culture and history is to the exclusion of all others. Hardline nationalism and religious fundamentalism have a lot in common.

      I suppose the money will be diverted into military spending. Cultural destruction and the promotion of violence. How depressing.

  • Bruce Chatwin

    “If institutions want taxpayer money, they need to come up with a valid argument for why they qualify”

    There are of course many valid arguments why humanities qualify for funding, but not ones that Abe and his fellow travellers want to hear.

  • Steve van Dresser

    Wow! The Japanese government is paying to dumb down the curriculum. Soon college graduates will be able to compete efficiently with robots.

  • Bruce Chatwin

    Finance Ministry bureaucrat Makoto Fujishiro states “Because there are few educational facilities that nurture such human resources (dynamic businesspeople, lawyers well-versed in intellectual property rights, and corporate leaders with adequate management skills) in Japan, the nation should allocate more financial resources to them”.

    Where is the evidence that the sciences, any more than the humanities, nurture human resources such as dynamic businesspeople, lawyers well-versed in intellectual property rights, and corporate leaders with adequate management skills?

    This is just an excuse to cut costs. At the same time, Abe and his horde
    of Nippon Kaigi revisionists can poke all those pinko, lefty, latte-sipping
    historians and philosophers in the eye. It’s really win-win for the Abe and the LDP.

  • Paul Johnny Lynn

    That’s one way to stop those pesky humanities students wanting “facts” and “the truth” about history, eh?

    • RedBaronsCuz

      I am inclined to believe that this IS one of the main reasons. Get rid of those pesky historians and revisionism can go ahead unimpeded.

      • ChbiM

        Yes. And, ironically, he will be trashing Japanese literature courses as well. So much for “Beautiful Japan” and caring for the nation’s heritage.

  • zer0_0zor0

    That’s history, Peony-chan. :¥

  • zuko

    Doesn’t this contradict Abe’s “Japan is Back” strategy? MEXT has been focusing on cultivating gurobaru jinzai – people with a more international outlook. I don’t see how removing humanities courses will help this strategy.

    • ChbiM

      “Kokusai-ka” is empty rhetoric. The only way to have it is to have strong humanities departments and strong cultural studies faculties, but it’s all bull. They want money from abroad, they want to sell things abroad, and that’s it.

  • J.P. Bunny

    “……by grasping accurately changes in industrial structure and industrial needs.” Political speak for “we need workers that won’t question anything and will blindly follow orders.” This guy really needs to be kicked out of office.

  • Frido

    Socialize the expenses and monopolize the earnings! A bold idea the industry has there, capitalism at its purest – and Abe serves it. The industry knows well what “matches their needs” and should educate their work drones themselves instead of bothering the universities and thus, the taxpayer.
    Humanities convey the art of free thinking, and the essence of a vivid nation is its drive to perpetually recreate itself. The moment when young people are mere replacements for the ones who fell off their molds a country’s destiny has taken course to the cemetery.

  • majiandsn

    Book burning and widespread Internet censorship will be next on the LDP’s national agenda…. The 2014 national security “censorship” law was just the beginning.

  • RedBaronsCuz

    Given that the humanities teach people critical thinking skills – to think with their hearts and not just their minds – I am not surprised. This field is also the one that writes the histories of nations, something Abe has little need for in his revisionist vision for Japan. The less objective academics the better…

  • John L. Odom

    The prime minister fails to recognize the benifits of study of the humanities. It is NOT either/or, it should be both. Scientists and engineers need greater understanding of the humanities to build us, humans, a better world.

  • ChbiM

    It’s worth mentioning that without humanities departments, universities will not be universities. They will no longer provide a universal spectrum of subjects; that is the meaning of the word “university” (although many places in Japan that call themselves universities are not actually universities but vocational colleges – ‘university’ is a mis-translation of ‘Daigaku’).

    If major Japanese universities end up without humanities departments, they will no longer stand alongside others on the international stage. That is worth thinking seriously about. Harvard, Oxford, the Sorbonne – it would be unthinkable for them not to teach liberal arts. It would be a tragedy if Tokyo and Kyoto universities, and the others, ended up in the position of losing liberal arts. I don’t think they would ever be taken seriously in international terms again. And Japan would be regarded as a country where culture was a dead letter.

    The more I think about this plan, the more ridiculous it seems. For crying out loud, even Assad in Syria tolerated liberal arts.

  • Jay

    I finally begin to understand why my literature courses are being cut. It is truly regrettable, as I had come to believe that through the reading and discussing of certain poems and stories that we were engaging in the deepest thinking about life, self, love, time and mortality. Apparently, all that is now wanted is, “repeat after me: this is a pen, I am a robot . . .”