Last month Education minister Hakubun Shimomura issued a notice to all 86 national universities instructing them to make a draft for reforms over a six-year period beginning in fiscal 2016. It specifically asked them to scrap departments and courses devoted to humanities and social sciences, or shift resources more to areas “for which society has strong needs.” This reflects an idea contained in the latest version of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic growth strategy, which says that an important role of national universities is “to build a system to produce human resources that match the needs of society by accurately grasping changes in industrial structure and employment needs.”

The education minister’s move, which reflects his failure to understand the important role played by humanities and social sciences, will weaken the power of intellect not only of those universities but also the nation as a whole. The education minister should change his basic thinking.

In his keynote speech to the council meeting of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in May 2014, Abe said, “Rather than deepening academic research that is highly theoretical, we will conduct more practical vocational education that better anticipates the needs of society.” The education minister’s notice follows this idea. He seems to have forgotten that one of the important missions of universities is to enrich students’ understanding of human culture and nurture their ability to think critically through the study of humanities and social sciences.

Pursuing studies of humanities and social sciences may not produce quick economic results. But shunning them risks producing people who are only interested in the narrow fields of their majors. Studies of literature, history, philosophy and social sciences are indispensable in creating people who can view developments in society and politics with a critical eye. In this sense, Shimomura’s move may be interpreted as an attempt by the government to produce people who accept what it does without criticism. Abe, Shimomura and education ministry officials should realize that a decline in the study of humanities and social sciences will likely hamper the growth of creative work even in the fields of technology. They should heed what Steve Jobs said when he launched the iPad2 tablet computer in 2011: “Technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”

The education ministry plans to monitor the progress of the national universities in enacting their reforms and allocate government subsidies to them accordingly. In addition, government subsidies to the national universities, which account for about 45 percent of the combined revenue of those institutions, have been reduced by roughly 1 percent annually in recent years. The education ministry’s notice will lead some universities, especially those on a weak financial footing, to abolish or scale down humanities and social sciences departments and courses.

Shimomura’s notice is the government’s latest attempt to intervene in the affairs of national universities. Law revisions in 2014 made it possible for outside members of a national university’s management council to select its president and make important decisions, ignoring the will of university instructors. In mid-June, Shimomura asked national universities to display the Hinomaru national flag and sing the Kimigayo national anthem at entrance and graduation ceremonies.

The education ministry should refrain from any moves that suppress the academic freedom and autonomy of national universities. It should remember that the primary purpose of universities is to provide students with a well-rounded education that helps them become more insightful citizens.

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