Government softens stance on humanities after uproar

Japan’s education ministry officials have softened a controversial stance publicised in June 2015 to favour university science courses over the humanities and social sciences for state funding after it sparked an uproar among the academic community.

Nonetheless, with the government intent on promoting change, universities are drawing up their reform plans which include new courses in line with the government’s National University Development Plan.

Government funding over the next six years, beginning from April this year, will be allocated based on how universities propose to put into practice the government’s vision to reform higher education.

Around half of the country’s 86 state-funded universities have started on structural reforms. Their plans will be approved by the government by the end of March.

According to a survey of Japanese university presidents by the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper last year, some 26 out of the 60 national universities with humanities and social science programmes had said they would shut down those departments from the 2016 academic year or later, after the ministry called on universities to “take active steps” to shut down or revamp them to “better serve society’s needs”.

While no longer being forced to close humanities courses, several universities have established new programmes as part of their reform plan. These include pledges to increase foreign students and foreign faculty in line with the government’s aim to make universities more internationally minded.

In a ‘Vision 2020’ statement unveiled by the country’s top university, the University of Tokyo, last year, the university’s president, Makoto Gonokami, called for the jettisoning of ‘conventional ideas’ and outlined changes to the way the university is managed and operated.

Tokyo keeps humanities

Gonokami also outlined support for more collaboration with researchers overseas, with a stress on fostering diversity. Key to this will be reforms of the researcher employment system to provide a more secure future for foreign researchers and faculty.

In the document, Gonokami referred to the dire problems facing Japan and its higher education – an ageing population and large financial deficits which means that national institutions can no longer depend on state grants.

However, Tokyo University along with Kyoto, another top ranked university, have said they will not drop humanities and social science courses, for which they have no shortage of applicants.

In fact, Tokyo University’s Vision 2020 outlines “further revitalisation of the humanities and social sciences” under its research agenda.

However, it will not be clear until all the reform plans are assessed by the ministry what impact the government’s reform plans have had on humanities and social science programmes at Japanese universities.

Japan’s 86 national universities are supported by public funds of over ¥1.09 trillion (US$9.2 billion) annually. With an ageing population, and the number of 18-year-olds likely to enter university predicted to halve by 2050, universities are facing a crunch.

New courses

Kobe University, one of Japan's leading public universities with a reputation for management studies, last year announced a new programme in science, technology and innovation, described as fostering innovation studies.

Professor Kenichi Shoji, advisor to Kobe University, said the new programme aims to enhance the university's core strengths while also attracting new students.

“The new two year course offers students a degree in entrepreneurship by combining traditional engineering studies and entrepreneurship classes,” Shoji told University World News.

Another attraction is that the faculty will comprise conventional engineering professors plus Japanese entrepreneurs who have launched their own business ventures, he said. The programme was approved by the ministry of education last year paving the way for 70% of funds to come from state grants with the rest from tuition fees. Some 40 new students have been accepted onto the first year of the course.

Kobe University is also revamping its liberal arts programmes, announcing a new course in 2017 that integrates the faculties of intercultural studies and of human development, to produce graduates with international experience, and to cater to new demand from Japanese companies keen to develop global businesses.

Shoji said: “Both courses will produce a new generation of Japanese youth who can find jobs that now demand new ideas that will translate into concrete ventures abroad.”

Long-delayed changes

The government states its reforms are aimed at producing top quality research and globally minded graduates who can become leaders and contribute to society.

Another goal is to have 10 Japanese universities ranked among the world’s top 100 compared to two – Tokyo University and Kyoto University – at present.

However, some academics view the reforms as short-term, focusing on gaining higher international ranking rather than establishing a platform for long-term effective changes. Other academics said their institutions had already been planning changes.

Masayuki Yoshida, a professor of economics at Miyazaki University, said a new faculty for regional economy will start operating from this April as part of the institution's reform plan, launching a new course on tourism and regional economic development.

“The need to develop new courses that can make our university special has been on the management agenda for a while and is not directly linked to the Japanese government reform plan. But certainly the official policy has also raised the pressure,” Yoshida said in an interview.

The university’s new department is supported by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s landmark Abenomics plan to revamp Japan’s regional economies and will look at local issues and economy. The university aims to increase the number of students from local areas and also pave the way for its graduates to be employed in local businesses.

“Regional areas are facing population decline and our youth are moving to big cities for higher study and jobs. The new course at Miyazaki University will offer them an alternative,” Yoshida said. Around 90 students have signed up for the first year.

“Concrete results from this course will only be available after the graduates decide their future jobs, either locally or to move out. But this is an important start where universities have begun to play a crucial role in the development of local vicinities,” he said.