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Who should pay for higher education in Japan? The public, parents or students themselves?

Kyodo

The powers that be have enacted legislation that will expand support for higher education, including grants and scholarships for college and trade school students from low-income households. Education experts are suggesting it’s time once again to consider who should shoulder the costs.

The law coming into force next April will ensure that tuition fees for eligible students at universities, two-year colleges, specialized training schools and professional training schools will be waived or reduced, and scholarships and grants to cover their living expenses will also be provided.

“We are aiming for a society where people can seize the future by their passion and effort regardless of their households’ financial situation,” education minister Masahiko Shibayama said as the Diet deliberated the bill.

The government plans to pay for this by tapping revenue from the consumption tax hike planned for this October.

But considering that people have a stronger desire to see public support for early childhood education than tertiary education, Masayuki Kobayashi, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Center for Research and Development of Higher Education, suggests that the general public needs to be reminded of the socio-economic benefits of higher education.

Speaking before the Lower House Commission on the Constitution and elsewhere, Kobayashi insists that higher education will correct economic and educational disparities beyond generations through increases in income and economic growth based on improved skills and knowledge brought by education.

Japan has some of the highest tuition fees for tertiary education among OECD member countries, with costs rising in the past decade, according to the OECD study Education at a Glance 2018.

Government spending on tertiary education in Japan accounts for 1.7 percent of public spending, barely better than half the average of 3 percent for OECD countries.

Tertiary educational institutions in Japan rely heavily on private funding, as 68 percent of expenditures is privately funded, more than twice the OECD average of 30 percent.

Kobayashi classifies educational institutions in various countries by tuition and student aid policies. Japan’s public universities are classified as “low tuition, low aid,” while its private universities are categorized as “high tuition, low aid.”

U.S. public universities and community colleges are classified as “low tuition, low aid,” while U.S. private universities are labeled as “high tuition, high aid.” Sweden is classified in the “low tuition, high aid” category.

Kobayashi also presents three models and background beliefs for education in terms of cost-sharing for higher education.

According to these models, parents sustain higher education based on a paternalistic view in Japanese society, as opposed to the public sustaining higher education in welfare states like Sweden, or students themselves in countries with individualistic societies such as the United States.

According to a survey by the Japan Student Services Organization, the amount of financial support provided by families as a percentage of the income of university students has declined — from 76 percent in fiscal 1996 to 66 percent in fiscal 2008, and to 60 percent in fiscal 2016, while the percentage of student loans increased from 6 percent to 15 percent to 20 percent in those years.

Meanwhile, the number of students who rely on student loans has been rising. The student service organization, an independent institution affiliated with the education ministry, provided a total of around ¥1.02 trillion to more than 1.29 million university and other students in fiscal 2017, a significant surge from roughly ¥200 billion in fiscal 1994 and about ¥500 billion in fiscal 2002.

Since fiscal 2010, the amount loaned to students has exceeded ¥1 trillion each year, according to the organization.

While student loans were the primary form of student aid, the organization started providing scholarships and grants with no obligation for repayment in fiscal 2017 to meet increasing demand for such assistance, joining efforts by local governments and the private sector.

There is concern that a heavy reliance on student loans can be burdensome for individuals in their post-school years.

The organization is expected to give out scholarships to some 20,000 students in the current fiscal year through March 2020.

Starting in April 2020, about ¥350,000 will be provided on an annual basis to students at national or other public higher education institutions who commute from their family home, and about ¥800,000 for students who live away from home. About ¥460,000 and around ¥910,000, respectively, will be provided to students of private schools.

About ¥540,000, the standard tuition fee at national and other public universities, will be waived and private school tuition fees will be reduced by up to ¥700,000.

The annual income of eligible households has been set at less than ¥2.7 million for a family of four, while students from families with an annual income of below ¥3.8 million are eligible to receive a partial scholarship.

Some national universities have already raised tuition fees prior to the anticipated tax hike.

Opposition lawmakers and critics have denounced the aid plan, claiming the scope of recipients needs to be expanded as middle-class families are expected to face a more substantial financial burden in the future. School payment gaps between public and private school students could also widen.

“The legislation will cover only limited targets, and needs to be revised,” said Shizuka Iwasaki, a student at the University of Tokyo and the head of a student advocacy group. “I hope (the government) will lower tuition and expand scholarship programs toward free education in a true sense.”