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In the largely classless society of postwar Japan, educational qualifications, particularly at the college level, have been the key determinant of career opportunities. Hence, standardized admission and low tuition fees ensured that anyone with brains had a chance to attend the top national institutions such as the University of Tokyo (“Todai”), and then launch themselves on a fast-track career path at a blue-chip corporation or in the civil service.

Consequently, the whole nation has long been obsessed with education, with Todai as the ultimate goal. However, an absence of government scholarships, recent steep fee increases at national universities and cuts in government financial aid to students are now denying bright students with limited means a vital springboard to career opportunities. This endangers the egalitarianism that has driven Japan’s postwar economic growth.

Annual tuition fees at Japanese universities are now among the highest in the world. Those at national universities, which were a readily affordable 36,000 yen in 1975, have risen 15-fold over three decades to a daunting 536,000 yen after a further increase last year. This figure, according to a Ministry of Education survey, is more than double the average fees of state universities in the United States. The ministry, however, seems intent on pushing up fees even higher.

In a Diet debate last year, a senior ministry official spoke of the importance of closing the gap with private institutions so as not to be “unfair to students who attend private universities,” whose fees currently average 807,000 yen. “Let the recipients bear the cost of education” is the guiding principle of the ministry — a principle that academics say was first proposed by a government panel in 1975, but has of late been embraced under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s market-driven “reform” program.

A year before last year’s fee increase, the government abolished the only avenue of free tertiary education, which was available to those who went into the teaching profession. Now, the only financial aid available to Japanese students are loans of between 30,000 yen and 100,000 yen per month from a semigovernmental corporation. Some students qualify for interest-free loans, but a majority must pay interest on their “debt.”

Applying market principles to these loans, the government is putting pressure on borrowers in arrears to pay up, using private collection firms. This is harsh and shortsighted, particularly in comparison with the British system, for example, which does not demand repayment until a student’s income reaches a certain level, and the repayment schedule can be pushed back almost indefinitely.

In contrast, the current Japanese policy could put undue financial pressure on students, and even worse, make higher education inaccessible to those with limited means — especially those who must live away from their homes in the provinces. Already academic standards are suffering because most students work part time to help pay their way, leaving them less time and energy to devote to their studies.

Moreover, in the absence of university-owned student accommodations, an increasing number of students live at home to minimize expenditures, making it harder for them to become independent of parental protection and influences. “This is a problem in the development of teenagers into adulthood,” says a professor emeritus of Chiba University.

Yet the government seems blind to the long-term social and academic costs of the current policy, which will undoubtedly have economic consequences in the future. Former Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, in an interview with the Asahi Shimbun, expressed concern that Japan could end up as “a laissez faire society” reminiscent of Victorian Britain, with life becoming harder for the less privileged.

As a result, feelings of inequality might pervade society and young people who were denied education opportunities — and hence career opportunities — could lose motivation.

Japan, Rwanda and Madagascar are the only three of the United Nations’ 151 member countries that have not ratified the clause in the International Covenants on Human Rights committing them to “the progressive introduction of free higher education,” and “accessibility” of it to “all.”

In 2001, Japan spent 0.5 percent of GDP on higher education — only one-third of Canada’s spending and nearly half of America’s. If the government aims to cut this still further, it will be even more out of step with the global trend and put Japan in danger of losing international competitiveness in the years to come. In the U.S., the model for the open market economy, the federal government annually budgets nearly $10 billion (about 1 trillion yen) for scholarships. No such scholarships are available to Japanese students in Japan.

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