Student dropout rate on the rise due to pandemic impact

With the new academic year beginning in April, universities in Japan are reporting a drop in new and ongoing student enrolment linked the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on families’ economic circumstances and on student mental health.

A February survey conducted by Kawaijuku, a leading education institute, showed applications for the country’s 107 major private universities’ exams normally taken in April were down 12% compared to last year.

“The biggest reasons cited by students for dropping out are financial difficulties as well as debilitating loneliness given the lack of campus life as their classes are now online,” said Tomihiro Kokubo, in charge of student counselling at JAIC, a recruitment organisation advising students and universities.

Additional data released by the ministry of education last month shows more than 1,300 students dropped out of higher education institutions including universities since last April.

The figures covered public and private universities and other tertiary institutions from April to December 2020. Top reasons given by students were their struggle to pay tuition fees followed by loneliness and lack of motivation while forced to study online at home.

In an online post, a 20-year-old male student from Chiba University, a national university, wrote that he had decided to leave his studies due to financial hardship and lack of friends.

“I cannot pay my tuition [fees] as my income has dropped drastically. I lost my part-time jobs due to cutbacks from companies affected by the lockdown. I have decided to find a job rather than get further into debt without a concrete future,” he wrote.

Kokubo predicts that the number of students deciding to drop out of university will only increase this year as jobs become scarce and household incomes turn unstable.

“As a result, the pressure will increase on universities to review the old system where regular student enrolment was the norm,” he said.

It is common for Japanese universities to permit temporary leave for students facing financial difficulties. But experts point out that the pandemic-linked dropout trend has turned the spotlight on the long-term consequences for higher education in Japan.

“The economic downturn linked to the coronavirus has exposed the challenges facing higher education institutions in Japan. There is an urgent need to revamp the system that calls for more flexibility in both academics and management,” said Professor Kaori Suetomi, an expert on education policy at Nihon University.

Suetomi, a researcher on student well-being, explained that universities have not taken this issue seriously in terms of policy or action.

“The lack of support offered for students in most universities is becoming a key issue for management against the pandemic backdrop,” she said.

Her research has indicated that students have begun to assess universities on the basis of their better support services and enriched campus activities.

Universities face the challenge of developing new policies that can balance dealing with the pandemic while providing a stimulating academic experience, including better online teaching that can bring students together.

“The survival of universities from this year will be based on prioritising student needs,” she said, adding that in 2020 universities managed to survive by providing special scholarships and grants to pandemic-affected students.

The government provided 270,000 students with one-time scholarships of up to JPY100,000 (US$918) or extended tuition payments in 2020, which may have stemmed even higher dropout rates.

“The new year is going to be a very different situation with its focus on mental health issues,” she said.