Private Universities in Japan: A Race to the Bottom?

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The importance of higher education in promoting economic growth is a well-known axiom of development and this role is only expected to increase as changes in globalization, demography and technology impact national economies. To remain competitive, a nation will need to improve productivity and adopt policies that encourage innovation. One nation requiring such actions is Japan, which has faced unprecedented upheavals, both natural and manmade, that have significantly impacted its economy, society and national psyche.

Following a return to power in 2012, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has pinned hopes on his economic policy dubbed “Abenomics,” a three-pronged approach to reflate the economy through monetary, fiscal and structural policies. Recently, however, economic pundits have been having a field day downplaying Abenomics following the weak economic performance of the Japanese economy over the past quarter. The first two arrows, monetary and fiscal policies, have been less than stimulating, and supporters of Abe’s strategy have now pinned their hope on the third “arrow”:  structural reforms including changes in corporate and labor market regulations as well as emphasis on improving international competitiveness. This includes improving the quality of higher education in Japan, which has lagged behind its American and European counterparts.

How to improve higher education in Japan, however, has become a major task given the changing demographics and the dire straits of the government’s fiscal position. While a number of initiatives such as incorporating national universities, initiating a certified evaluation system, expanding competitive resource allocations, and promoting internationalization are already in place, these initiatives have not necessarily positively impacted private universities, which have suffered from continued declines in financial support from the national government. In addition, one could also argue that globalization has contributed to the deterioration of the educational environment, as quantity rather than quality of students has become the focus of university admission.

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Kariya Takehiko, a well-known sociologist, terms the current situation in Japanese higher education the “Japanese disease” and notes that “with the exception of a small number of elite colleges, getting into university is no longer particularly competitive and students have lost their incentive to study.” A major factor contributing to this ailment is large number of private universities in financial difficulties due to the inability to attract enough students.

Gregory Clark, former president of Tama University, has noted private universities need to secure a certain number of students to maintain themselves as viable economic entities. During the 2013 academic year, however, slightly fewer than one-half of private four-year universities were unable to enroll enough students to fill their quota for a fixed number of students. The extent of the problem is further complicated by the fact private institutions comprise over 75 percent of all institutions and over the past decade a number of junior colleges have been restructured into four-year institutions.

One common strategy adopted by private institutions to avoid bankruptcy and remain financial viable is to recruit foreign students, primarily from China and other parts of Asia, to fill the open spaces. These efforts to increase the number of international students are in line with the Japanese government’s “300,000 International Students Plan,” which sets a long-term goal of having 300,000 registered international students at universities by 2020.

As private universities look to these foreign students as keys to survival, a large number are working hard to strengthen services for international students, such as providing substantial Japanese-language education courses, support for daily life issues, and help with housing and job-seeking in Japan. Essentially, students are the clients of the universities and higher education is an industry. Thus, the fundamental goal of student instruction is the satisfaction of the students, which can be looked at as implying students need to be assured that they will eventually graduate with a diploma.

This focus on quantity of students, however, implies that academic learning may not be the top priority. And anyone familiar with Japanese higher education knows this is not a new trend, as most Japanese universities have always demanded little of their students once they are enrolled. This phenomenon has been noted by the authors’ experiences, and is a well-known feature of Japanese higher education. Once students get into college, they do not study but play. For most, it is their only stretch of relative freedom and leisure before entering the workforce.

Some of the current prescriptions to treat the “Japanese disease” are special education programs consisting of remedial education for Japanese students and special training in the Japanese language for foreign students. Training is also being provided to foster new students’ independence in learning and stimulate their interest in campus life. Special guidance regarding all aspects of campus life, including class registration, credit acquisition, and applications for financial support, internships, and employment inquiries is also made available. Emphasis is placed on motivating students in the hope that students will devote more energy and effort to the task of learning. 

The efficacy of such medicines may be too early to determine, but Takamitsu Sawa, president of Shiga University, asserts that the majority of foreign students pursuing undergraduate and vocational curricula in Japan are doing so because they have failed to advance to higher education in their own countries. This supports the contention that universities with insecure economic foundations will admit students almost regardless of their academic achievements or readiness so long as they can pay the fees.

While there is no doubt that economic and demographic changes are beyond the control of the institutions themselves, efforts to staunch the rapid deterioration in educational quality will be required on all fronts to resolve some of the more glaring problems facing private university higher education in Japan today.

Down the road, it is also easy to visualize poor university academic quality being detrimental to the recruitment of new students, in particular foreign students, which would exacerbate the financial crisis further. It is time for universities and politicians to consider new and innovative approaches to these problems, which actually provide solutions rather than maintaining the status quo. Private universities can be the agents of change by understanding that maintaining the status quo will simply result in a grand race to the bottom. And the bottom is a place where no one can win.

Dr. Rong Zhang is an Associate Professor at Nishinippon Institute of Technology and has been teaching in Japan for more than 15 years. Dr. Dennis McCornac is a Visiting Affiliate Professor at Loyola University Maryland. He has extensive experience in Asia previously holding university positions in both Japan and Vietnam.

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