Since the mid-2000s, the number of Japanese people who turn 18 in a given year has remained constant at about 1.2 million. That will change with the high school graduating class of 2018, which will be smaller than the class of 2017.

This eventuality, though predicted some time ago, is making the government and the education industry nervous. For two decades the authorities have grappled with the declining birthrate and its effect on demographics, and during that same period there has been an increase in the number of universities in Japan. In 2015, there were 604 privately run four-year institutions of higher learning, or about twice as many as there were in the 1980s.

In 2012, then-education minister Makiko Tanaka refused to approve three new private universities, saying there were too many already, but she later bowed to bureaucratic pressure and allowed them to open. The current amakudari (descent from heaven) scandal involving education ministry bureaucrats securing post-retirement employment in the field they administer before retiring — a practice that is illegal — shows that the relationship between the ministry and universities remains codependent. It’s all about money or, at this point, economic survival.

This is one reason for the media’s obsession with Japan’s rankings in the latest survey of Asia’s best universities as carried out by the magazine Times Higher Education. The University of Tokyo, ranked seventh, is the only Japanese school in the top 10. Japan still has more schools on the list than any other Asian country, but that’s because it has so many schools in the first place. Only 12 of the 69 Japanese universities mentioned are in the top 100, two fewer than last year. In terms of worldwide rankings, only two Japanese schools are in the top 200.

Education researcher Yo Ogawa studies Japanese universities vis-a-vis their counterparts in other countries. In his latest book, “Kieyuku ‘Genkai Daigaku’: Shiritsu Daigaku Teiinware no Kozo” (“Vanishing ‘Universities on the Brink’: The Framework of Insufficient Enrollment at Private Universities”), he shows how declining academic standards are the result of schools’ efforts to stay in business. Years ago these institutions recognized the difficulties that lie ahead and have been trying to prepare themselves.

During a recent discussion of his book on the TBS radio show Session 22, Ogawa kept circling back to the number 80. Every year, private universities set enrollment targets, and as long as they reach at least 80 percent of their targets, they can get by. Anything less and they fall into the red. Right now, says Ogawa, about 130 private universities, or one-fifth of the total number in Japan, are already below 80 percent, which means if they don’t get their numbers up they will probably go bankrupt.

The curtain on this Darwinian scenario rose in the ’80s, when two-year junior colleges saw enrollment drop because their main customer base — female high school graduates — decided to pursue university degrees as clerical jobs were becoming automated. Many of these schools, with the permission of the education ministry, restructured as private universities. The timing was good. The children of the baby boom generation started graduating from high school in 1986, so there was greater demand for higher education. Ogawa calls this period the “bonus stage.” Private universities charged whatever they wanted. Juku (cram schools) practically printed money.

Universities received another boost when the bubble era ended in the early ’90s. As growth slowed, fewer companies hired high school graduates, so more young people felt they needed a university diploma to get a good job. Though the government already knew enrollment would drop by the end of the decade, they allowed more new universities to open. Compared to other developed countries, Japan’s matriculation rate to four-year universities was low at 50 percent, so there was room to work with. The trick was to get high school graduates who would normally go on to vocational schools to switch to universities, so the government relaxed regulations to allow universities to adopt departments and curricula that were more transparently job-oriented. In the ’80s, the only private university with a nursing program was St. Luke’s. Now, one out of four has one. Private universities also developed “katakana courses” — programs with English language names like “communications” and “global education” that had a fashionable ring to them. With their own enrollments dropping, many vocational schools restructured as universities.

Last year, news site Post Seven reported that the number of private universities facing insolvency was around 250, higher than Ogawa’s number. Private institutions derive 80-90 percent of their operating budgets from tuition, and since 2009 some have restructured as public schools, which receive funds from local governments and thus can charge lower tuition fees. Local governments like the idea because they think young people in their areas will take advantage of the lower cost rather than move away for college. But as one researcher told Post Seven, such public schools become a net burden on the finances of the local governments and in the long run siphon students away from private schools with sounder management and better academic standards. The effort to increase and maintain enrollment results in a deceleration of scholastic progress — less world-class research, fewer academic papers — and a glut of veterinarians and dentists.

The hallowed national university system isn’t completely free from these concerns, either. In 2004, each was incorporated and put in charge of its own finances, but the employees had no experience in running corporations. According to the Mainichi Shimbun, soon-to-retire education ministry officials were “transferred” to these schools to help them with budgets and the like — basically amakudari through a loophole. By that token, it doesn’t take a leap of logic to believe that the purpose of deregulating private universities was to keep them in business so they could provide bureaucrats with new fields to graze after being sent out to pasture.

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