The effectiveness of a proposal by a government panel of experts to stop universities from increasing their student enrollment capacities at their campuses in central Tokyo — as a measure to halt the continuing population flight to the capital area — is in doubt, unless the move is accompanied by greater efforts to create more employment opportunities for youths outside of the greater Tokyo area. That the government is thinking about resorting to such a regulation appears to reflect the poor results of the Abe administration’s regional revitalization campaign.

As Japan’s population rapidly declines and ages, the population exodus to the metropolitan area with Tokyo at its center remains unabated. In 2016, Tokyo and the three neighboring prefectures of Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama had a net population inflow of nearly 118,000 people — a trend that has continued for 21 years and defies the administration’s target of balancing the annual inflow and outflow to the greater Tokyo area by 2020.

Youths in the 15-24 age bracket account for a major portion of the net inflow, which indicates that many of the people moving to the Tokyo area do so when they either get jobs after graduating school or enter universities in the area. While Tokyo’s 23 wards are home to 7 percent of the nation’s total population, students who attend universities in central Tokyo account for 18 percent of the nationwide total. Hoping to halt the population exodus from their areas, the national association of prefectural governors has been urging the government to take steps to curb increases in the capacities of universities in Tokyo to accept more students.

A midterm report adopted this month by the government’s panel of experts weighing measures to reverse the flow of people into the capital calls for legal steps to stop universities from raising the capacities of their campuses in the 23 wards, saying the schools should scrap existing departments when they open new ones so that the total enrollment doesn’t increase. Pending the panel’s final report, due by December with more specifics, the government will reportedly consider proposing relevant legislation in the Diet next year.

However, it is questionable if capping the enrollment capacities of universities in central Tokyo alone will encourage more youths to go to schools elsewhere. There are views that operators of universities, well aware of the tightening competition as the youth population dwindles with the low fertility rate, may open new campuses in Tokyo suburbs or seek to increase their enrollment capacities in central Tokyo before the planned regulation kicks in. Operators of private universities have opposed such a regulation as an obstruction to their management freedom. Restricting enrollment capacities could hurt the business of universities in ways that hinder their education and research activities, they say, and deprive prospective students of the right to choose what and where to study.

With the nation’s birthrate still near its historic low, the population of 18-year-olds — now around 1.2 million — is forecast to start falling rapidly as early as next year. Merely capping the number of students attending schools in Tokyo will likely not halt the inflow of youths to the capital area. And even if this trend is curbed by regulating the capacity of universities in the capital, youths will eventually move to where they can find jobs after graduation.

The key to reversing the population inflow to Tokyo will be creation of more jobs for youths in other parts of the country. The Abe administration’s efforts on that front have so far produced less than impressive results. One of the key programs to reverse the population exodus — a tax incentive on companies that transfer their headquarters out of central Tokyo — has found few takers. Private-sector data show that firms moving out of Tokyo continue to be far outnumbered by those moving in. The administration’s drive to relocate national government functions out of Tokyo — supposedly designed to set an example for the private sectors to follow — has so far resulted in the Cultural Affairs Agency’s planned move to Kyoto within several years, but much more needs to be done if the government is to take the lead in transferring jobs out of Tokyo.

Regulating the enrollment capacities of universities in Tokyo will not serve as a substitute for these efforts.

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