Universities pressed to streamline, and cut humanities

Universities will face pressure to streamline and refocus their mission on developing skills for the global jobs market under sweeping reforms announced last week. The education ministry wants to raise the standing of science and technology and said that humanities departments could be axed.

The Japanese government said the reforms would make universities more efficient and able to operate better in a globalised environment.

“Efficiency” is seen by the government as necessary against a backdrop of depleting state funds and an indebted economy.

The new National University Development Plan, scheduled to take effect from April 2016, covers 86 national universities across the country. Institutions will be expected to choose a mission under three main categories—enhancing global standing, regional development and specialised studies.

“Funds will be dispersed according to universities officially defining their missions and [submitting] plans to achieve their targets,” said Kenta Hasegawa, at the higher education reform section, Ministry of Education.

Universities are expected to outline a six-year operational and financial management plan with the main goal set at developing graduates with skills to excel in a global environment, he said.

The reforms will promote innovation in Japan's lofty higher education institutions that have long relied on a tradition of operating on largely unquestioned financial packages from the government, Hasegawa said.

The definition of missions will be under the discretion of the university management. The university’s roadmap, including research programmes and mid-term targets, will determine the allocation of national funds for each university.

Specifically the ministry said the reorganisation would include more emphasis on fields that have “greater demand in society” as the population ages. This could include abolishing humanities departments, it said.

Earlier this month state-funded universities and research institutes were instructed by the ministry to submit by the end of the month a rough draft of their plans for becoming more efficient over the six-year reform period. The ministry said it would monitor progress on achieving the plan's targets every year and allocate funds accordingly.

Global standing

“The latest reform package reflects the aim of the government to make Japanese national universities earn a high reputation in an international environment while surviving under depleting funds.” explained Tsukasa Daizen, an expert on global studies education at Hiroshima University.

A core idea behind the latest reforms is to boost Japan's global standing in science and technology research, in particular, medical, environmental and robot technology. This target is, according to critics, based on yardsticks in science and technology research that are more easily measureable than, for example, the outcome of humanities teaching and research.

The University of Tokyo, Japan's leading higher education institution, and the top seven national universities were recently awarded state grants under the Super Global Universities plan to improve their international profile after sliding in recent global rankings against their Western counterparts and the rise of some Chinese institutions in the rankings.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has declared a goal to place at least 10 Japanese universities in the world ranking of top 100 universities within the next decade.


According to the Ministry of Education, the reforms will make the higher education sector more efficient in the face of changing social demands – notably a declining birth rate which has led to a drop in university applications, and an aging population putting pressure on the state’s budget.

Japan’s higher education budget in 2015 is around JPY1.09 trillion (US$8.8 billion) in funding for state universities and research, the lowest among the advanced economies of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD. The University of Tokyo received around JPY80.3 billion (US$650 million) followed by Kyoto University with JPY53 billion (US$429 million).

In the past decade higher education budget allocations have dropped by around 1%.

“The reduction of funds will open discussion on how to get the best results under the constraints,” Hasegawa said.

The new measure has sparked a mixed reaction from universities. The Nikkan Kogyo Shimbun newspaper, a daily specialising in engineering and technology, commented that the reforms put pressure on higher education institutions to become part of official categories that could threaten their funding.

“For example, selection of regional development as the mission plan could result in lower funds for that institution as decided by the government. This is in contrast to the largely equal distribution of funds to national universities [currently],” wrote the newspaper.

Koji Sugisaki, a professor of linguistics at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Mie University, told University World News the university would be "forced" into the category of universities whose primary role is to contribute to the economic growth in the local community.

This would discourage high quality research at the university whose faculty of linguistics conducts high quality research and has many foreign trained academics. “The goal of linguistic research is not directly connected to the contribution to economic growth in Mie," Koji said.

"Faculty members are quite active in their research and continue publishing good journal papers, but once our university has decided that our major goal is to contribute to the local communities, it would become hard to obtain support for this ‘global’ aspect from the university itself.

"I believe the same situation would arise in a number of academic fields in many national universities, and would contradict another major goal proposed by the Ministry of Education to the national universities, that is, globalisation."

Norio Masunaga a professor of administration at Kyushu Kogyo University was quoted by local newspapers as saying the survival of regional universities will depend on more mergers and the integration of institutions in the area.

Another concern for the less prestigious universities is a reduction in state financial support for liberal arts, as universities are forced to concentrate on subjects useful to global industry, to the detriment of ‘less visible’ subjects such as the humanities.