Forging a Path Forward: Japan’s Universities Face Challenging Future

Higher Education Reform: A Tale of Unintended Consequences

Science Technology Society Culture

At a time of tough fiscal constraints, Japan's universities are under mounting pressure to do more with less. Unfortunately, government reform initiatives to date have been anything but encouraging. Suzuki Kan, an aide to Japan’s education ministry, examines recent policy failures and new reform trends in relation to the formidable challenges facing Japanese universities in the twenty-first century.

Policy making in the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) has enjoyed some signal successes, particularly when it comes to self-contained initiatives whose scope is limited to education circles and the schools themselves. But MEXT has proved less successful in planning and implementing “open-style” reforms that involve and rely on other sectors of society—including some of the most publicized university initiatives of recent years. All too often, high-profile programs have been launched without sufficient planning or discussion regarding such key issues as the number of students to be affected, the desired outcomes, and the means of quantifying success or failure.

An example of a successful self-contained education initiative was the plan to boost academic performance among the nation’s 15-year-olds. The government decided to take action after Japan’s international ranking dropped sharply in the results of 2003 Program for International Student Assessment, a survey conducted every three years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. By 2012, Japan had surged back to first place among the 34 OECD countries. In this latest survey, Japanese 15-year-olds outperformed their counterparts in other industrial countries—including Finland—not only in math but also in reading. Progress in the latter area can be attributed to a concerted nationwide campaign featuring a mandatory morning reading period in all elementary schools. Thanks to this program, the percentage of elementary students reading less than one book per month fell to 3.8%, and the monthly average rose to 11 books. These are remarkable outcomes.

In contrast, recent initiatives to promote the development of world-class human resources by restructuring Japan’s legal and postgraduate education systems typify the policy failures that have plagued MEXT’s open-style reforms.

Boomerang Effect of Market-Oriented Reforms

Early in this century the government undertook to boost the number of lawyers in Japan, which is low by international standards. A cabinet decision calling for an increase in the number of applicants passing the bar exam proved impracticable in the face of resistance from the Japanese Federation of Bar Associations. But policy-makers at the top remained wedded to the idea of expanding the pool of candidates by lowering the standards for accrediting new law schools, leaving competitive forces to winnow out the unfit. The upshot was an oversupply of weak law programs and graduates unable to pass the bar exam or to find jobs once they did.

The expansion of university doctoral programs ran into similar problems. The basic idea was sound, since an advanced degree has become a prerequisite for employment in a growing number of professions worldwide. Unfortunately, the fiscally strapped national government failed to provide the additional funding that universities and research institutes needed to create positions for the new PhDs. Japanese corporations had little use for them, and the scholars themselves were neither able nor enthusiastic entrepreneurs. The result was what the Japanese media refer to as the “postdoc problem”—a generation of scholars with PhDs but no practical prospects for putting them to use.

In both cases, the reforms produced a discouraging boomerang effect. When the new programs were instituted, they attracted large numbers of promising students. When it turned out that degree holders were unable find suitable employment, young people lost faith in the system, and the flow of qualified students slowed dramatically. Suddenly universities and employers were unable to find talented graduates to fill the spots they had created, and they, too, lost faith in the system.

Part of the problem is a short-term annual education budget framework and an undue political and media focus on the latest “signature policies.” Agencies can often secure funding for an exciting new policy initiative in its first year, but by year two, allocations are being shaved to make way for the next batch of signature policies. This fuels the tendency to launch programs without sufficient preparation. It would be better to allocate education funds on a five-year basis, but the Ministry of Finance objects to this sort of budget planning.

Securing the Future of Science and Engineering

Ever since the end of World War II, Japan has made science and technology the top priority of government investment in higher education. As a result, the science and engineering departments of Japan’s national universities have managed to attain student-teacher ratios on a par with Western institutions. The seminar (kenkyūshitsu) system, which creates small, hierarchical teaching and research communities organized around the work of an established scientist, has proved highly successful in nurturing talented researchers.

Indeed, since 2000, Japan has produced a remarkable number of Nobel Prize winners in the sciences, many of whom come from regional public universities. Japan is reaping the harvest from years of investment in the nation’s sci-tech education and research apparatus. The University of Tokyo program in physics ranks third in the world in the metric of research citations; Kyoto University’s chemistry department ranks fourth in the world; Osaka University is number four in immunology; and Tōhoku University is fifth in materials science.

However, there is good reason to question whether Japan can maintain this high level of achievement going forward. These days, talented students in the sciences are rushing to find jobs in industry after earning their master’s degrees; only 9.9% go on to doctoral studies. While other countries have boosted their spending on scientific education and research, Japan’s budget has remained flat for the past 15 years, with the result that our universities and publicly funded research institutions have been unable to establish new posts for young scientists.

If Japan is to maintain its competitiveness in science and engineering, it needs to beef up its doctoral programs and produce PhDs that can play a meaningful role in private industry, entrepreneurship, and the international job market (including academic and industry employers in the world’s emerging economies). To do this, we must foster competencies in global communication, project design and management, and problem solving oriented to social issues, as well as conventional research skills. The effort has already been launched under the Program for Leading Graduate Schools, which is providing grants to 62 programs at 33 universities to develop globally competitive advanced degree programs. Some 3,300 students are already enrolled, and by 2017 most of them will have completed their degrees.

Rescuing the Humanities

More serious challenges face university programs in the humanities and social sciences.

In general, public spending on higher education is markedly lower in Japan than in other industrial countries. Government expenditure on colleges and universities amounts to a mere 1.5% of GDP in Japan, as compared with 2.5% in the United States. Within this limited budget, science and engineering have reigned supreme, with the result that spending on the social sciences and humanities has languished for decades now.

Until fairly recently, Japan was able to get by with such weak programs in the social sciences and humanities in large part because of the key role Japanese corporations assumed in training young adults to function in society, both through structured employee education programs and through on-the-job training. But in the second half of the 1990s, as Japanese business came under pressure to restructure following the collapse of the 1980s asset bubble, big corporations were forced to curtail their investment in the training of young workers. The trend toward hiring of temporary, contract, and other nonregular employees—largely as a consequence of regulatory reform—further eroded the traditional emphasis on long-term investment in employee training and education.

With businesses investing far less in human resource development at the entry level, the skills of Japan’s young workers declined markedly, and people suddenly began looking to the universities’ social science and humanities programs to fill the gap. At this point, the government should have stepped in to provide funding for the kind of general education that businesses were no longer providing. But fiscal constraints, a lack of political leadership, and a failure of understanding by taxpayers all conspired against adequate investment in human-resource development via undergraduate education.

The leaders of Japanese industry are anything but unanimous as what sort of education universities should provide, and what should be provided by businesses themselves. Some have suggested that universities be classified as either global or local, with local universities focusing on basic business skills.

Keidanren (Japan Business Federation), Japan’s most influential business organization, takes issue with this notion in its September 2015 policy statement Basic Thinking on Reform of the National Universities: “What businesses seek in terms of human resources is not ‘combat readiness.’ They are looking first of all for recruits that are healthy, physically fit, and imbued with a sense of public virtue. During their elementary and secondary schooling, they should have acquired a wide-ranging general education, the ability to identify and solve problems, the ability to communicate in a foreign language, and the ability to express their ideas and opinions logically. Equipped with such knowledge and skills, university students at the undergraduate and graduate level should acquire specialized knowledge in the field of their choice and, just as importantly, cultivate an understanding of cultural and social diversity through experiential learning of various kinds, including study abroad.”

Groping Toward General-Education Reform

MEXT has been working energetically on the idea of general-education reforms spanning the high school and college curriculums. In August 2015, it issued a policy statement on high school education stressing the need for “active learning” aimed at cultivating problem-identification and problem-solving skills, along with measures to boost the number and quality of high school teachers. In September, the ministry adopted a policy calling for a fundamental shift in the emphasis of university entrance examinations, from multiple-choice questions geared to assessing knowledge to essay questions aimed at gauging thinking skills, judgment, and the ability to communicate. At the same time, members of the Japan Association of National Universities reached an agreement to expand to 30% the quota of students admitted on the strength of high school transcripts and recommendations, rather than a single standardized test score.

At the university level as well, humanities and social studies programs must embrace project-based and problem-based learning in order to cultivate real-world problem-solving skills. Education officials are hammering out the details of a curriculum policy reform aimed at encouraging such a shift in orientation.

The biggest challenge, however, will be securing qualified educators to teach the social sciences and humanities and reduce the high student-teacher ratio after decades of neglect. This will require an infusion of funding from public coffers, private business, and tuition increases. So far, however, it has been difficult to win support for more investment in the social sciences and humanities at the university level, largely because of the lingering stereotype of Japanese undergraduate education as a four-year vacation between the end of high school and the beginning of work.

Japanese universities that focus on the humanities and social sciences have come under harsh criticism from various quarters, including the corporations on whose contributions they depend. High school seniors, as well as teachers and researchers in the social sciences, have been turning their backs on such schools and heading to the United States.

Clearly, however, this is not a viable option for everyone. On average, the tuition at a top-tier private college or university in the United States is at least 10 times that of a national Japanese liberal-arts university. Realistically, only the wealthiest and highest-performing students in Japan are likely to have access to an internationally recognized humanities or social science program overseas. This is why we must work to provide broad access to a quality college education within Japan. The media have a responsibility to alert the public to these concerns.

Challenges of “Strategic Management”

The only way the universities and MEXT can secure the understanding and support of the nation’s financial decision makers is to prove themselves through successful reform efforts. In this context, our business and political leaders seem particularly eager to see progress in the area of strategic planning. Echoing this emphasis, MEXT has adopted a number of initiatives designed to encourage differentiation of Japanese universities by purpose and mission, including the Top Global University project, the Program for Promoting the Enhancement of Research Universities, and reforms aimed at strengthening the authority of university presidents.

But can universities successfully pursue the sort of “focus strategy” widely advocated in business? Is it appropriate for them to pick and choose specific areas of education and abandon others? Who should bear the costs of such reform, and how? We need a serious, mature debate of these issues among all of society’s players and stakeholders. University administrators and education experts should not wait for the government to establish a panel or committee to answer these questions. They need to take the initiative in hashing out the issues, educating the public, and deepening the level of discourse.

Assuming that a university can decide on a viable plan for strategic differentiation, it still faces formidable challenges. Today’s universities lack the resources for identifying, locating, developing, managing, and providing compensation to managers with the expertise to put such a plan into effect. Indeed, before we can even begin to move in that direction, we must come to grips with the nature of university administration, including how it resembles and differs from business management and government administration.

The situation in Japan today is not unlike that which faced US higher education in the 1980s. Around that time, major cuts in the federal budget forced universities to adopt a new model of administration. This was also when education administration began to come into its own as a specialized profession. Today Japan is also facing the necessity of developing and implementing a new model of university administration. While some aspects of the American experience may be applicable to Japan’s, “path dependency” dictates that others will not be. We must apply what lessons we can as we address this urgent challenge. It will not be an easy transition, and the birth pangs will doubtless continue for some time to come.

(Originally written in Japanese and published on January 18, 2016. Banner photo: Over 3,000 graduates attend the commencement ceremony at the University of Tokyo’s Hongō Campus in March 2015. © Jiji.)

Ministry of Education Top Global University Project Japanese higher education Japanese universities postgraduate education systems law school