High demand for STEM degrees raises concern for humanities

In June last year Midori Koya, aged 24, changed from graduate studies in history at a prestigious private university in Japan to digital marketing, saying it would help her gain a better-paying job. “A doctorate in history, my ultimate goal, is basically limiting my job prospects,” she said.

Higher education experts in Japan point out that Koya’s decision is not uncommon and is even set to become the norm. But the implications for the survival of humanities departments in universities could be dire.

Social sciences and humanities programmes accounted for 70% of student enrolments in 2019. As the government is also strongly promoting science and technology, experts contend that the trend will have an impact on the future of Japanese universities. In order to survive, many will have to adapt by stepping up the number of science programmes they offer.

Better jobs

“The reality is that more youth plan to enter science and technology to get better jobs. As a result, I expect Japanese universities that have traditionally focused on liberal arts education will find it tough to survive financially,” said Kenichi Ishihara, enrolment counsellor at the Sundai Educational Institute, a top private academy in Tokyo preparing students for university entrance exams.

The decreasing appeal of humanities is in part linked to the ongoing pandemic. Ishihara said online study and the lack of part-time jobs for students as companies cut back because of the pandemic-related economic downturn, has led young people to reconsider their options.

“In contrast to their predecessors, more students want higher education that promotes their job prospects. That means they are carefully weighing where their money goes,” he said.

Student applications for fiscal 2022 for national and public universities increased by around 2% this year, but entries for science degrees have risen almost 16% compared to a rise of less than 1% for humanities and social science, according to figures released by the Ministry of Education in February this year. The most popular degrees selected by students are pharmacy, medicine, engineering and IT-related fields such as data science.

The increase in applications to national and public universities is due to more students applying to prestigious universities to improve their employment chances as the pandemic has affected companies’ financial health and employment projections, experts said.

Science for survival

Abundant public funding for Japan’s top University of Tokyo supports its ground-breaking research and large science faculties, but more Japanese universities have begun to offer new science-based courses to attract students in response to the changing scenario.

For example, Kwansei Gakuin University, a private institution based in Hyogo prefecture, western Japan, with around 25,000 students, last year launched new multidisciplinary departments: schools of science, engineering, architecture, and biological and environmental sciences. The first students are to start this month.

Kohei Fukumoto, spokesperson for the university, explained that the decision to boost science-related programmes that offer multidisciplinary courses reflects the changing times.

“Enrolment this year in our science and technology departments grew 10% while numbers in the humanities remained static. Among the most popular subjects, AI [artificial intelligence] stood out,” he said.

Kwansei Gakuin University’s reputation has traditionally been based on its science and engineering programmes, which has helped facilitate the changes.

Takashi Inoguchi, a professor emeritus at Tokyo University who has extensive experience teaching at both large and small private universities, explained that the survival of higher education institutions in the new environment is largely dependent on funding and their capacity to innovate.

“The survivors will be Japan’s prestigious national universities that will lead in science and technology because they have the support of public funds. But interestingly, smaller universities that can provide quality and focused liberal arts education will be attractive to female students interested in following a career in research,” he told University World News, adding that more female students are choosing research-based universities aiming for academic jobs and are more likely to study overseas.

Inoguchi’s recent book, Strengthening Japanese Universities (English translation), also points to a lack of funds for research in small universities, which makes it imperative that they make changes.

Alarm at decline of humanities

Some academics are watching these trends with alarm. Yukari Yoshihara, a professor in the faculty of humanities and social sciences at the University of Tsukuba, teaching pop-culture and literature, is bitterly critical. “Universities are developing science-based courses mainly to attract funding. This is harmful for students who seek a PhD in liberal arts education,” she said.

The University of Tsukuba has already halved its faculty. A year ago, it had 60 academics; now it has just 30, Yoshihara said. The University of Tsukuba became a national university in 2004, giving it access to larger public subsidies.

Within the humanities, experts note that language and literature are least popular with students. Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts, Kyoto, reported a 1% dip this year in student applications to its English department.

Yumiko Hada, who heads the department, said discussions are ongoing about how to survive.
“The debate now is between merging with other faculties or even scrapping the English literature subjects altogether, because this section is not financially viable,” she told University World News.

Hada acknowledges the huge pressures on universities to adapt.

“Most Japanese universities have long histories that produced educated youth to enter companies where they were trained in-house. With that situation now in flux, the new generation needs another kind of education.

“The role of universities in Japan is becoming strongly linked to neo-liberal [economic] policies,” she said, referring to students’ desire to study finance or science rather than humanities in order to get higher paying jobs.