The government plans to cap the enrollment capacity at universities in Tokyo’s 23 wards as part of its efforts to reverse the continuing population flight to the capital. The legislation, based on a report by an expert panel, will be submitted to the Diet next year. What immediate impact this controversial measure will have in dispersing the concentration of people in Tokyo remains to be seen, much less whether it will contribute to the government’s target of balancing the region’s net population inflow and outflow by 2020.

The case made by proponents of such a step — that the population flight must be curbed when youths from outside the Tokyo area enter universities in the capital — seems to make sense. In recent years, the annual net inflow of people of any age into the greater Tokyo area, which includes Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa prefectures, has reached roughly 120,000. About 70,000 of that number is the net difference between youths leaving their hometowns to go to universities and two-year colleges in the greater Tokyo area than those in the area moving out to enter institutions outside the area.

Universities in Tokyo reportedly have the capacity to accept roughly twice the number of graduates from high schools in the capital who go on to higher education. Many of the students at universities in the metropolitan area will likely seek jobs in Tokyo-based companies and few will return to their hometowns to find work. Hence the argument that the enrollment capacity of universities in Tokyo should be capped to reverse the population influx.

A report compiled earlier this month by the expert panel discussing measures to ease the population concentration in Tokyo called for capping the enrollment capacity of universities in the capital’s 23 wards — either as temporary or permanent measures — as well as the creation of a new grant system to help institutions outside of the metropolitan area.

In September, the education ministry disclosed a guideline that it will not authorize any increase in such capacity at private universities and colleges in the 23 wards in fiscal 2018 and creation of new institutions in the area in fiscal 2019. Many of the public comments about the guideline were critical of the decision, such as that the move runs counter to the autonomy of universities and academic freedom, or that it restricts the freedom of youths to study in Tokyo. Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said such a measure will only spoil the international competitiveness of Japanese universities and damage the national interest.

The problem is that merely capping the enrollment capacity at universities in Tokyo will not guarantee that more youths will choose to enter schools outside of the metropolitan area. With the nation’s low birth rate, the population of 18-year-olds has dwindled by 40 percent over the past quarter century to hit 1.2 million this year — compared with 2.05 million in 1997 — and is forecast to drop further to 880,000 in 2040.

Unless the ratio of high school graduates advancing to higher education rises sharply, universities across the country will be competing to attract the shrinking pool of youths. If Tokyo continues to attract more youths, universities in the rest of the country will find it hard to keep operating.

The bottom line is that universities outside of the Tokyo area must be made more attractive to youths — and more job opportunities must be created in regional economies for their graduates — to halt the population exodus. The panel’s report calls on universities outside greater Tokyo to specialize in fields where they can be unique and strong in order to attract students from all over Japan and abroad. It also proposes developing a system in which the national government offers grants to promote joint projects among these universities and local public-private sectors that create jobs and human resources for local economies. That sounds like an appropriate proposition, but it’s easier said than done.

More emphasis should be placed on these efforts, but it’s not clear whether they will have near-term effects in actually reversing the population exodus to the Tokyo metropolitan area. The government should also strive to make progress on other initiatives in its regional revitalization efforts, including the relocation of national government functions out of Tokyo.

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