One day in mid-May, Benjamin Peters, vice president of a university in Miyazaki Prefecture, asked some students in English to explain the differences in thought between Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes.
The seven students, who had read English books on the philosophers to prepare for their political science class at Miyazaki International College’s School of International Liberal Arts, answered him in the same language.
“I study three hours to prepare for a class,” one of the students said. Her friends at other universities are surprised when she tells them how much time she spends studying.
The private four-year college in a suburb of the city of Miyazaki conducts all classes in English, a rarity in Japan.
The approach has paid off. TOEIC scores among students who graduated from the school this March averaged 683, compared with an average of 390 when they enrolled four years earlier.
Five of the 10 applicants hired as public junior high school English teachers in Miyazaki Prefecture were graduates of the college.
Overall, 98 percent of its students successfully found work upon graduation.
From this, it might be assumed that the college is very popular, but that is not the case. It currently has about 370 students in its two schools, far below the 600 it had planned to accept.
Miyazaki International College is one of many regional universities and colleges struggling to survive amid Japan’s ever-declining youth population and the drawing power of Tokyo.
The population of 18-year-olds in Japan peaked at 2.49 million in 1966 before declining to 1.19 million in 2016. It is expected to drop to 880,000 by 2040.
Some universities and colleges will likely be forced out of business as the pace of population decline among 18-year-olds is expected to accelerate in 2018.
Already in fiscal 2016, which ended last March, nearly half of the 600 private universities and colleges across Japan had failed to secure the number of students they had planned for.
Meanwhile, state-run universities continue to get more applicants than they have room for, but the ratio is dropping.
Peters, an American professor of political science, says regional universities are affected more by the declining child population. But he believes his college still has a bright future thanks to its educational accomplishments.
Tokyo’s popularity among students is also blamed for the plight of regional universities.
A survey conducted in fiscal 2016 by the education ministry found that 750,000 students were attending universities and colleges in Tokyo, about a quarter of the nationwide total.
In mid-May, an advisory panel formulated a draft recommendation calling on the government to ban universities in central Tokyo areas from increasing their student rosters.
The recommendation was drafted following a request from the National Governors’ Association to curb the creation of new departments by Tokyo universities as way to stem the flow of young people from rural areas to the nation’s biggest cities.
The Japan Association of Private Universities and Colleges has released a statement opposing the recommendation, however, branding it as a “restriction on academic freedom and the right to education.”
Universities and colleges are not just sitting idly by awaiting their fate.
Some offer original programs, such as Miyazaki International College’s English-only curriculum. Others have set up departments aiming to contribute to their local economy through studies useful for the promotion of industry and addressing depopulation issues.
At Utsunomiya University, a state-run university in Tochigi Prefecture, students both from liberal arts and science courses study local issues in collaboration with residents and local government employees — looking into such topics as how to sell regional specialties at higher prices or how to keep existing infrastructure functioning.
“It is fun having discussions from different perspectives,” said Sae Aida, an 18-year-old freshman in the university’s department of regional design, after a class debate on how to boost sales of fish sausages. After she graduates, Aida hopes to find work either as an employee of a local authority or with a nonprofit organization.
As the department was launched just last year, its 300 students are currently freshmen and sophomores. When they become juniors, they will form five-member groups to be assigned to various areas of the prefecture to address local issues.
Fourteen of the 25 municipalities in Tochigi Prefecture, in addition to the prefectural government and local companies, are looking to accept the groups in the hope that the students will help address their problems.
Jun Tsukamoto, dean of the department, says he expects the university to gain the confidence of local residents and authorities through collaboration to nurture people to work for local communities.
“In this way a university will be able to survive, despite the declining child population,” he said.