National

Subsidies used as carrot to prod Japan's national universities to streamline and ditch humanities

by Shusuke Murai

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.