National

Japan enacts legislation making preschool education free in effort to boost low fertility rate

Kyodo

Japan enacted legislation Friday that will make preschool education free as part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s drive to expand child care support and boost the country’s birthrate.

The government will use revenue from the planned consumption tax hike in October to run the education program, which is expected to cost ¥776 billion per year.

The bill, which secured Lower House approval in April, was passed by the Upper House on Friday, amid criticism from some opposition lawmakers that the government should first focus on reducing the number of children on waiting lists for nursery school spots before making preschool education free.

Under the program, the government will make preschool education free for all children between 3 and 5 years old starting in October. Day care services will also be made free for children up to 2 from low-income households.

If parents send their children to preschools that are not authorized by local governments, maximum monthly subsidies of ¥37,000 per child will be given for those between 3 and 5, and ¥42,000 for those aged 2 and younger. School meals will not be covered.

“The financial burden of education and child-rearing weighs heavily on young people, becoming a bottleneck for them to give birth and raise children. That is why we are making (education) free,” Abe told a Diet session on Thursday.

Abe’s administration has been encouraging greater participation by women in the workforce amid a deepening labor crunch, while trying to reduce the number of children on waiting lists for day care facilities.

The nation’s fertility rate — the average number of children a woman will bear in her lifetime — stood at 1.43 in 2017, according to government data.

Abe changed how the revenue from October’s planned consumption tax hike — to 10 percent from 8 percent — will be used, prioritizing child care support over improving the country’s tattered finances.

While ongoing U.S.-China trade tensions have raised uncertainty about the outlook for the nation’s export-driven economy, Abe is expected to go ahead with the tax hike barring an economic downturn on the scale of the financial crisis triggered by the 2008 collapse of U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.

The Diet also passed a bill to cut the financial burden of higher education on students from low-income families that are exempted from residence tax payments.

Under a system to be launched in April 2020, entrance and tuition fees will be waived or reduced at public and private universities.

At national and public universities, standard entrance fees are about ¥280,000, while tuition comes to around ¥540,000 per year.

In addition, students from tax-exempt families will receive grant scholarships that can be used to buy textbooks, pay for transportation or cover living expenses. In an example case, the government said that if students come from a family of four with an annual household income of less than ¥2.7 million, they can take advantage of all the system’s benefits.

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