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Japanese government asks universities to close social sciences and humanities faculties

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Japan’s Minister of Education has asked all national universities to close their social sciences and humanities departments
  • 26 universities have so far confirmed plans to close affected faculties or convert them to "areas that better meet society’s needs"

A recent survey of Japanese university presidents found that 26 of 60 national universities with social science and humanities programmes intend to close those departments during the 2016 academic year or after. The closures are a direct response to an extraordinary request from the Japanese government that the universities take “active steps to abolish [social science and humanities departments] or to convert them to serve areas that better meet society’s needs.”

The government’s position was set out in an 8 June 2015 letter sent by Minister of Education Hakubun Shimomura to all national universities and higher education organisations in the country. In it, Minister Shimomura argued that the move was necessary “in the light of the decrease of the university-age population, the demand for human resources and…the function of national universities.”

The Minister also made it clear to the universities that the government’s ongoing financial support for each university depended on their response. “There was a clear ‘or else’ behind the demand,” wrote journalist and educator Kevin Rafferty in the South China Morning Post, “or else you won’t get money.

Policy to action

The backdrop for these dramatic events in Japanese higher education is President Shinzō Abe’s economic growth strategy – colloquially known as “Abenomics” – which clearly frames the role of national universities as “[producing] human resources that match the needs of society by accurately grasping changes in industrial structure and employment needs.”

A recent Japan Times editorial referenced a May 2014 OECD speech where President Abe reflected a similar perspective: “Rather than deepening academic research that is highly theoretical, we will conduct more practical vocational education that better anticipates the needs of society.”

Higher education policy in Japan is now reportedly determined via the President’s Council on Industrial Competitiveness, a special body composed of government ministers, business executives, and (two) academics. And it appears that the Minister’s June letter to universities emerged from deliberations within that group and, more fundamentally, from the President’s conviction that Japan’s higher education institutions should be more directly focused on the country’s labour market needs.

Fundamentals at play

Aside from the political convictions of the day, Japanese higher education is facing some profound challenges familiar to educators in many developed economies. We noted earlier this year that the Japanese education system is now on the verge of significant change as it continues to adapt to sweeping globalisation initiatives and the pressures of a declining school-age population.

The outlook is that admissions policy and curriculum – even the makeup of the system itself – all stand to be very different in the near future than they are today.

A significant underlying factor in this is that the total number of college students in Japan is projected to follow a downward demographic trend from 2018 on. That population of students is forecast to decline by about a third over the next 15 years, from 650,000 students in 2018 to 480,000 in 2031.

Competition among universities has predictably increased as the applicant pool has begun to shrink and roughly 40% of the country’s private universities were operating below capacity as of 2014.

These prevailing trends, as much as anything else, may have further spurred the universities’ decision to close or reinvent their humanities and social sciences departments.

Cue the debate

Reaction has been swift – and, in some quarters, fierce – to the news of the Minister’s June letter and the resulting decision to close many of the targeted undergraduate and graduate programmes. “The foundation of democratic and liberal societies is a critical spirit, which is nurtured by knowledge of the humanities,” said The Japan Times in what has so far stood as one of the harshest commentaries. “Without exception, totalitarian states invariably reject knowledge in the humanities, and states that reject such knowledge always become totalitarian.”

The powerful business lobby group Keidanren was also quick to respond to the government’s assertion that the business community only requires people with practical skills. “Some media reported that the business community is seeking work-ready human resources, not students in the humanities, but that is not the case,” said Keidanren Chairman Sadayuki Sakakibara. He added that Japanese companies desire “exactly the opposite” – that is, students who can solve problems based on “ideas encompassing the different fields” of science and humanities.

For its part, the Science Council of Japan issued a formal statement to affirm its position that the humanities and social sciences “play a vital and unique role in critically comparing, contrasting and reflecting on the way in which human beings and society operate, make an essential contribution to academic knowledge as a whole, [and are entrusted with the role of solving – in cooperation with the natural sciences – contemporary problems domestically as well as internationally.”

As these commentaries suggest, one ironic effect of the government’s intervention in June has been to spur a wider debate and appreciation in Japan about the importance of the humanities and social sciences.

It is too early to say what the wider impacts will be. Some faculties will certainly close or shift focus as early as next year, and this change will be driven in part by the certain knowledge that Japan has more higher education capacity than it needs.

Time will tell whether any such changes at home will encourage Japanese students to pursue humanities and social sciences abroad in greater numbers. In the meantime, developments in Japanese education will bear watching closely for their potential impacts on international mobility. At the least, they will also carry some important lessons for educators in other countries dealing with similar challenges of demographics, changing economies, and global competitiveness.

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