Amending the Constitution for free education

A draft proposal by the Liberal Democratic Party to amend the Constitution falls short of its campaign promise in the general election last year to realize “free education” but merely obliges the government to make efforts to improve education environment and ensure that each individual will have access to education opportunities irrespective of their economic conditions. The LDP put free education among one of its four priority area of amendment, but backed off from stipulating the goal in view of opposition on the grounds of huge additional expenses needed to make preschool and higher education free of charge.

Article 26 says that “All people shall have the right to receive an equal education correspondent to their ability, as provided for by law. All people shall be obliged to have all boys and girls under their protection receive ordinary education as provided for by law. Such compulsory education shall be free.” The proposed revision seems to add so little in substance — the Basic Law of Education already provides against discrimination in access to education for economic reasons — that it’s doubtful whether the Constitution needs to be amended just to add what it says. Efforts to pursue free education — which have already been launched by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — should be discussed independent of the debate over constitutional revision.

The LDP has set four priority areas in the discussion for amending the Constitution — the war-renouncing Article 9, providing for emergency powers in times of national crises, free education and ensuring that at least one member is elected from each prefecture in an Upper House election — as the party seeks to compile its draft amendment for discussion with other parties in the Diet.

Free education is an agenda that people apparently find hard to reject — a recent Kyodo News poll showed that 45 percent of the respondents supported the LDP’s draft amendment on education versus 39 percent who opposed it. When Abe indicated his hope of implementing an amended Constitution in 2020 last May, the prime minister cited free university education as a candidate point of discussion along with revising Article 9 to clarify the legal status of Self-Defense Forces. That was widely viewed as an overture to Nippon Ishin no Kai, which had called for making education free by revising the Constitution. Abe’s ruling coalition needed the support of the small party to build a two-thirds majority in the Upper House — a condition needed to initiate an amendment for approval in a national referendum.

At the same time, many have pointed out that free education can be pursued without amending the Constitution. A 2010 law effectively made tuition fees on public high schools free and subsidized the fees for students in private high schools. The Abe administration last year adopted a policy package to make pre-school education free for children age 3-5 and provide tuition assistance for university students from low-income households.

The cost remains a big obstacle to free education under the government’s tight fiscal conditions. One estimate shows that making education free from pre-school to universities will require more than ¥4 trillion in additional government expenditures every year. In funding a ¥2 trillion package of measures to expand the scope of free education and child care services, the government decided to divert ¥1.7 trillion out of the additional revenue from a consumption tax hike next year, which had earlier been reserved for paying off social security-related debts.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Japan ratified in 1979, calls on its signatories to make higher education “equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education.” In that sense, the effort to make education, including tertiary school, free is an international commitment that Japan has already made. That should be pursued by sorting out the tough question of resources.

The role of education becomes all the more important as an investment in Japan’s future as the nation’s population ages and shrinks. Merely ensuring equal access to education opportunities for all would not be enough. What needs to be questioned even more is the quality of education. The issue of free education — and the contents of education — should not be used as a subject of short-term political bargaining. Efforts should be pursued to build a broad consensus on the matter, including the question of how to cover the expenses, from a long-term viewpoint of the nation’s interests.