Sixth year at bottom of education spending league

In a blow to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s aim to boost Japan’s status around the world, the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, revealed last week that Japan ranks at the bottom among 31 member states in the amount of the country’s wealth spent on education, including higher education.

According to the latest statistics released in the OECD’s Education at a Glance 2015 report, Japan spends just 3.5% of gross domestic product, or GDP, on education, below the average of OECD countries of 4.7% of GDP. By comparison the United Kingdom spends 5.2% of GDP on education, and Norway is on top at 6.5%. It is the sixth consecutive year that Japan has performed so poorly in education spending within the OECD.

The news comes as Japan is already reeling from reports of its top institutions sliding in global university rankings released in October, with its most prestigious Tokyo University being overtaken by institutions in China and Singapore.

Professor Takamitsu Sawa, president of Shiga University, a public institution in West Japan, said the core reason for low spending is the country’s large budget deficit that has continued to grow over more than two decades of economic recession.

“Japan simply doesn’t have the cash that is necessary to shore up its universities. The policy now is to keep cutting across universities while still allocating the highest funds in the available budget to its main public universities,” he said.

The highest recipients of national funding are currently the favoured University of Tokyo and the country’s second most prestigious institution, Kyoto University, which received subsidies of JPY80.3 billion (US$654 million) and JPY53 billion (US$432 million) in 2014 respectively.

“As president of a small university I am busy lobbying for an increase in public and private funds for our survival,” Sawa said.

Japan has 86 national universities and almost 100 public and private universities and two-year colleges. The national universities have the highest number of PhD students and research activities.

Pushed to make ends meet, Education Minister Hakubun Shimomura issued a notice to national universities in May this year supporting a six-year reform plan starting in fiscal 2016, from next April.

Under these reforms universities are required to set specific goals and road maps that outline mid-term goals and plans to produce human resources that match the needs of society.

An Abe initiative, under the reform slogan, now emphasises that universities should increase science and technology departments over studies in humanities, a development that has caused uproar within Japan and attracted attention outside the country.

“Rather than deepening academic research that is highly theoretical, we will conduct more practical vocational education that better anticipates the needs of society,” Abe said in May 2014 at an OECD meeting.

Experts say the new policy reflects the Finance Ministry’s aims to get universities to produce more tangible results such as new technologies and businesses that will benefit the economy.

“It’s shocking and works against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s target to raise the profile of Japanese higher education institutions into the world’s best categories,” stated Sawa, referring to Abe’s high profile reforms to revitalise the national economy with higher education a major cornerstone in this process.

“The goal is to usher reforms in these universities and raise their international rankings. This is obviously not working,” Sawa said.

In a blow to national pride, the UK-based Times Higher Education World University Rankings released in late September put Japan’s top university, Tokyo University 43rd, just behind Peking University at 42nd. The National University of Singapore was top in Asia, scoring heavily on the research citation category – an area where Japanese universities lag in particular.

The rankings results were all the more galling as Tokyo University was previously regarded as one of the top in Asia.

Professor Yuto Kitazawa, a committee member for reform proposals at Tokyo University, says lower national spending on higher education has entered a stage of no return. As funds diminish, Japan's higher education will face gaps, a major departure from traditional policy that has pushed a more or less egalitarian education system in the country.

“More competition for funds will lead to higher tuition fees,” says Kitazawa – fees at the University of Tokyo have risen steadily to more than JPY800,000 annually, up from less than half that in the 1980s.

According to Sawa, the government should take steps to promote structural changes to advance higher education, such as higher salaries for teachers, full-time positions for part-time instructors and an increase in scholarships for graduate students.