Japan’s education minister sent a notice to the presidents of the country’s 86 national universities in June telling them to abolish undergraduate and graduate schools devoted to the humanities and social sciences or shift curricula to fields the government thinks have “greater utilitarian value.” There was a clear “or else” behind the demand — or else you won’t get money. Even for a government counting its yen to pay for the pensions and social security of its ageing population and to send its soldiers off to foreign fields, this is a dangerous decision.

Three months later, facing a backlash, the education ministry claims the order was misinterpreted. It is not seeking abolition of the humanities, but it wants more “efficiency” and graduates “with skills to excel in a global environment.” Sadly, Japan is making too many mistakes.

One error is to invent a dichotomy between humanities and sciences. Another is to assume that university learning can be subjected to a government efficiency index. More egregious is the Abe government’s belief that it can change the world by edict. On top of this, Japan’s universities, with the exceptions of Tokyo and Kyoto, are not in the global league and do not understand what makes a university international.

Officials’ claims that the minister’s demand was misinterpreted are disingenuous, to be polite. The minister’s long letter managed to fool lots of angry people, including Shiga University President Takamitsu Sawa, who called his proposals “outrageous,” as well as Keidanren, which questioned the policy.

At a time of heavy government indebtedness and declining populations, governments must carefully count every yen. However, penny-pinchers should note that Japan’s public expenditures on higher education are only 0.5 percent of national income, the lowest of all the OECD rich countries and less than half the 1.1 percent OECD average.

“Reform” and “efficiency” are the official buzzwords. A senior official said universities would be expected to choose a “mission” under three main categories, enhancing global standing, regional development and specialized studies. “Funds will be dispersed according to universities officially defining their missions and [submitting] plans to achieve their targets,” the official added.

Let’s be blunt: Can the government, any government, control the dynamics? Far from being opposed to each other, humanities and sciences interact and exert a vital civilizing influence on each other. Arts and humanities provide the inspiration for science; logic and language communicate the importance of the scientific advance; and philosophy, politics and economics question and keep science operating in the interests of humanity and not going rogue, we hope.

Behind the “efficiency” drive is the belief that science education is a sausage machine into which you can put 100 yen and get a kilogram of immediately marketable product. In America and Britain, there’s a similar trend to concentrate university funding in the STEM fields, science, technology, engineering and math, which are supposed to provide a quick payoff in jobs and growth.

Path-breaking scientific research rarely responds to government mantras or the budget slot-machine. Remember Einstein: “If we knew what it was we were doing, it wouldn’t be called ‘research,’ would it?” Even where science brings great practical benefits, the road is twisted and tortuous: it took more than a decade to turn Fleming’s discovery of penicillin into Florey’s manufacture of the first antibiotic; teasing out DNA sequencing started from the discovery and isolation of deoxyribonucleic acid by Friedrich Miescher in 1869.

Broad understanding of the humanities can lead to scientific breakthroughs. Philosophy is the lodestone of mathematics, the queen of science. Bertrand Russell’s investigations into philosophy and language led to the artificial languages of modern computer science. Niels Bohr was inspired by Cubism and the principle of simultaneity in seeking to understand electrons. Earl Bakken based his heart pacemaker on a musical metronome; origami provided the inspiration for medical stents and improvements to vehicle air bags.

In 3-D printers, scanners, laser cutters and computer-controlled routers, art, science and business combine. Stephen Beal, president of California College of the Arts, suggests science is looking for answers and art is looking for questions. He quotes James Baldwin: “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers.”

Jerome Friedman, who won a Nobel Prize for quarks, got there by defying conventional advice. “Never stop asking questions,” he told me.

Given the increasing insularity of Japanese youngsters, hiding behind their electronic devices, Japan needs the humanities more than ever: A sound grounding in English and Chinese, the history of civilization and philosophy should be essential learning, especially for scientists and engineers. Most new graduates will become managers, salesmen, bureaucrats, even politicians, who need to look beyond their immediate horizons, for Japan’s sake.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is fixated on getting at least 10 Japanese universities into the global top 100. The latest Times Higher Educational tables make grim reading. Only two Japanese universities are in the top 200, Tokyo 43rd, one place below Peking University, and Kyoto 88th. Osaka fell precipitously from 157 to between 251 and 300.

Universities should be places for opening of young minds to new ideas, new questions, not amenable to official diktat. The best global universities offer a forum for great minds, from arts, philosophy and science, conversing, competing, sometimes clashing with each other. At the Harvard Faculty Club, in the modernist mess of MIT down the road, in oak-paneled Oxbridge common rooms, I immediately feel part of a blooming intellectual work in progress.

All involved in Japanese education should ponder the shortcomings of their universities: they are insular, suffocated by bureaucracy, and too dependent on a shortsighted government for funding. National universities get 55 percent of their income from operational grants; 28 percent from hospital revenues; 16 percent from tuition fees; less than 1 percent is from miscellaneous income. The glaring gaps are corporate funding and income from alumni, important funders for the best U.S. and British universities.

The control-freak called Abe has compounded problems by concentrating powers in the hands of university presidents, trying to give them control over appointments that were previously dispersed in faculties. This is a mistake because too many Japanese university presidents are appointed from within and lack management skills or training, making them prey to bureaucracy.

It is interesting to compare and contrast the University of Oxford (founded circa 1096) with Osaka University (1931). Professor Andrew Hamilton, the current vice chancellor (equivalent to president) of Oxford, had no previous connection with the university before being appointed in 2009 to a seven-year term. He did his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Exeter, British Columbia and Cambridge, before moving to a post-doc post in Strasbourg and to a career as chemistry professor in Princeton, Pittsburg and Yale. He was provost of Yale immediately before going to Oxford. Now that Hamilton is moving to be president of New York University, Oxford conducted an international search for his successor.

It chose its first woman vice chancellor, professor Louise Richardson, principal and vice chancellor of the University of St. Andrew’s, an Irish political scientist educated at Trinity College, Dublin, UCLA and Harvard. Oxford deliberately sought the best of the best internationally.

Osaka, like most of Japan, looked for homegrown talent. Toshio Hirano, a distinguished immunology professor, educated at Osaka with his entire career at Osaka apart from four years at Kumamoto, became president in August 2011. He was full of ideas, some excellent, and expressed determination to force Osaka into the global top 10.

He was stymied by his own autocracy, by tightening financial times and by bureaucracy. Hirano decided to boost the university’s funds by taking 1 percent of the profits of its medical hospital. It was a good idea, but not to do it without careful consultation and approval from his former medical colleagues. Cutting salaries by 8 percent and demanding a 10 percent reduction in academic posts cost Hirano goodwill.

In the 11 years since Japan’s national universities were corporatized, the bureaucracy revised the rules to entrench their powers. In my own Institute for Academic Initiatives, Hirano’s brainchild to promote dynamic research and internationalism, there were 10 fulltime academic staff, about 50 academics altogether counting those from other departments with their own bureaucrats; but IAI had 23 “support staff.” In the international department of the World Bank in Washington we had 60 senior staff and only six support staff.

Hirano stood for a two-year extension and was roundly defeated by an old rival. New president Shojiro Nishio received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Kyoto, but has been a professor at Osaka since 1992, so he is an insider. His slogan is: “Utilizing True Worth of the Individual for the Evolution of OU”[sic]. His official “Greeting” on the university English website includes this mind-boggling excerpt: “I intend to fully pursue the mutual linkage of the diverse knowledge possessed by Osaka University, like a concerto of knowledge, as well as the continued creation of this outstanding knowledge by students, faculty, and staff, a co-creation of sorts, and its contribution to society. Simply put, I will push this ‘concerto and co-creation of knowledge’ to its limits.”

Nishio’s inner council has one woman among nine members, so much for Abe’s call to use the talents of women. The University of Tokyo has zero women among eight members.

Japan’s universities must stand up to government while lessening their dependence on government funds. Surely Japan Inc. can contribute? One excuse is that Japan has few rich individuals and the big money is corporate, but that did not stop Nissan endowing an institute of Japanese studies at Oxford or Toyota putting $50 million into Stanford and MIT to design smart cars.

The ministry of finance should be persuaded to allow tax concessions for university donations: Let corporate funding bloom. With imagination, good will and generous companies, Japanese universities could host the Honda Institute for Friendly Robots, the JP Morgan Faculty for Safe International Finance, the Panasonic School for Advanced Home Electronics, the Nissei Genetic Investigation for Long Healthy Living, the Zuckerberg Academy for a Free Internet, the Mitsubishi Research Institute Center for Globalization, the Bill Gates Study for One World. Then Japan could put arts and sciences together to contribute to the world.

Do not give in to political ignoramuses who know the price of everything and the value of nothing, or Japan will be lost.

Kevin Rafferty, an Oxford University graduate, journalist and commentator, and former World Bank official, was a professor in the Institute for Academic Initiatives at Osaka University.

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