COVID-19 hits student finances, amid calls for wider reforms

Many students in Japan have been forced to give up university studies for financial reasons, after the country’s coronavirus emergency and lockdown resulted in the loss of part-time jobs and problems with family income.

While some students received assistance from universities, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised a wider package of support for students, academics said that COVID-19 could be an opportunity for wider reforms of the higher education system including a move to more online education and changes to Japan’s academic calendar to align more with the West.

An online survey in April, which elicited more than 1,000 responses from students, revealed that one in every 13 students is considering leaving university because of economic hardship.

The survey was conducted by ‘Free’, a student campaign demanding lower tuition fees. The group presented a petition to the government on 30 April with more than 10,000 signatures requesting support for students and calling for a 50% reduction in tuition fees.

A high 70% of student respondents reported steep declines in income from part-time work that supported their university tuition costs, student loan repayments and living expenses. In addition, 40% said those who supported them financially faced an economic drop, and 3.3% had completely lost their source of university funding.

In the latest ‘Free’ poll, students in single-parent households reported living on less than JPY70,000 (US$656) monthly. One respondent also wrote that his father’s sales business had shrunk by 80%.

Kazutaka Kimura of the ‘Free’ campaign told University World News that the organisation’s movement for free higher education started in 2018. “Students got together to campaign for COVID-19-related tuition reductions this time, but we will continue to push for free education even after this crisis.”

Kimura, a student at the private Hitotsubashi University, said a challenge is Japan’s social norms under which parents are expected to pay for their children’s higher education rather than the state, based on the concept of higher education access as an individual right and a private benefit.

Assistance needed as jobs lost

The Japanese prime minister declared a month-long emergency in Tokyo and six other prefectures on 7 April, later extended nationwide. It was due to end on 6 May but was extended to the end of the month. Japan had seen around 15,789 COVID-19 cases as of 6 May and 549 deaths.

A government labour force survey in March reported almost 25% of jobs lost in the manufacturing and hotel sectors and 14% in the restaurant business as a result of COVID-19. These are sectors that employ many students.

Foreign students who rely on part-time income and internships are also hard hit.

Abe has promised assistance to affected students and universities, including private colleges. The government currently spends 1.7% of the national budget on tertiary education, lower than the average of 3% among OECD countries. Private universities rely on tuition fees that comprise 80% of their income, with the rest from public funds and other sources.

Yuji Shirakawa, an associate professor at the national Chiba University, who has conducted research on tuition fees, explained that state assistance for poor students is not a new issue. The Ministry of Education provided a total of JPY1.02 trillion to more than 1.29 million university and other students in the 2017 fiscal year, a surge from JPY500 billion in 2002, according to the Japan Student Services Organization.

“The coronavirus has only raised the profile of this deepening problem, but with government stretched for public funds, supporting free tuition is not a possibility for the time being,” he pointed out.

Universities to the rescue

Universities are reluctant to reduce tuition fees, which could reduce their overall income, despite lost classes since the April shutdown. Private universities and colleges charge between JPY800,000 (US$7,500) and JPY1.3 million (US$12,000) annually.

Larger private institutions such as Waseda University pledged up to JPY400,000 (US$3,750) for emergency scholarships for cash-strapped students. Hiroshima University said it will provide a monthly stipend of JPY30,000 (US$280) for students in “urgent need”.

Tuhoku University, Sendai, announced a JPY400 million (US$3.75 million) emergency assistance fund including scholarships for students in need and part-time jobs at the university for around 2,500 students.

Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo, which switched to online learning for its spring semester from 20 April, has delayed the deadline for payment of tuition fees for the spring term to 19 September and set up an ‘emergency relief fund’ of university money and donations from alumni and teachers.

The university said it would provide JPY50,000 (US$470) to each student to go towards adequate internet connections and computers or tablets. But it said it would not refund or reduce tuition fees, saying education would be the same high level as before, just online.

Other universities have provided one-off payments to students to help them with the cost of accessing online courses or reduced fees by a small amount related to the cost of equipment to access online classes.

Major reforms needed

Professor Masayuki Kobayashi, an expert on education policy at JF Oberlin University, views the new challenges facing universities as an opportunity to change the system.

“Reforms are needed but measures taken to combat the current crisis should not be a stop-gap effort. The sustainability of new developments depends on the commitment and resources of the universities and government,” he said.

Academics point out that the coronavirus has forced changes in universities already, including online teaching which will continue until the end of summer – a major revolution for colleges and universities in Japan, where teaching is heavily based on lectures in the classroom.

Kobayashi predicts online teaching will become popular. “Online teaching will encourage more questioning and interaction in classes like in other countries. But the success depends on the commitment of professors and students to develop innovative teaching and maintain high education quality,” he said.

The Ministry of Education said in April that 65.8% of state-run universities and 35.9% of private universities and junior colleges have decided to introduce remote teaching.

Changing the academic calendar

On another point, Professor Yumiko Hada, dean of international studies at Kansai Gaidai University, argued that this could be the right time to change Japan’s academic year from April to September, which could further help internationalisation.

Academics have argued in the past that the difference in the academic year between Japan and major universities in the West hampers exchange programmes.

More than three-quarters of Japan’s higher education institutions delayed the start of classes in the new academic year, which usually begins in April.

Hada has sat on official panels studying changes to the academic year since 2012. But despite support in the Ministry of Education and from Keidanren, which groups Japan’s most powerful business conglomerates, it has not been implemented due to criticism that the changes needed would be too burdensome for universities.

Hada says the decision by universities and colleges to restart physical classes in September has boosted prospects for a change in the calendar. “There are many hurdles on the way to success but this time, given the COVID-19 related changes forced on us, it has showed Japan that here is a way forward,” she said.