They deserve better.

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Free Japan's Universities

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.
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Here is the good news: Japan’s national universities are not, in fact, getting rid of social sciences and humanities. Earlier this year, it looked as if Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (or MEXT for short) told public schools to cease education in these areas. When I spoke to MEXT officials this fall in Tokyo, they were eager to clarify that this wasn’t what they had ordered. They blamed misinterpretation by the Japanese press and mistranslation by the Western press for the misunderstanding. 

MEXT’s explanation was full of tortured nuance and ambiguity. From our conversation and from a public statement released by the ministry, I think I’m starting to get a better picture of what is actually going on with Japanese higher education. 

The main problem is that as Japan’s population shrinks, there are fewer college kids. That means less tuition money for universities. At the same time, the Japanese government is tightening its belt to fight gaping budget deficits. This is threatening to starve Japanese public universities of their two main sources of funding. 

As a result, universities will have to downsize. This process could happen naturally, with some universities closing, or with each university scaling back to focus on its specialty or area of popular appeal. But MEXT, like most of Japan’s central government bureaucracies, sees its role as guiding and shaping this transition. So MEXT called in representatives from each university to suggest ways that they could restructure their departments to focus on what the ministry perceived to be their specialties. Most of its advice concerned humanities and social science departments, which have seen increased interest from Japanese students in recent years. 

Later, in a doomed attempt to summarize the disparate pieces of advice it gave to the various universities, MEXT released a statement saying that universities should “restructure” their humanities and social science programs. The only ones specifically targeted for abolition were some teacher-training programs, since a dearth of primary and secondary students has led to an oversupply of teachers. Somehow, this vague and slightly ominous-sounding summary was interpreted by many in the press as a call to abolish humanities and social sciences. 

So law, economics and literature are safe at Japanese universities. But the whole affair points to some deeper problems with Japanese higher education. 

The first is money. With enrollment falling and government funds drying up, Japan’s universities are going to need new sources of cash to survive. The obvious place to look is alumni contributions. Alumni giving is common in the U.S. and many schools get significant amounts of revenue from alums. Japanese universities have only fledgling outreach programs, and there is very little culture of alumni donation. This can and should be changed. 

The second problem is independence. Rather than being micromanaged by MEXT, Japanese universities should be free to set their own administrative policies -- to design their own curricula and choose their own specialties. This will naturally lead to competition among universities. That is OK. Competition of this sort is healthy and good. 

Both of these reforms would help improve the international position of Japan’s universities, which is far below what it should be. Japan is not only well-supplied with smart and studious people, it is an attractive destination for smart and studious individuals from countries around the world -- India, China, Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere. Japan is also a wealthy country with plenty of money for research. So the country’s higher education system is clearly punching below its weight. 

If Japanese universities were forced to compete for money and position, they would be more likely to recruit foreign students and hire foreign professors. They would strive to improve their research performance in order to gain prestige. They would provide better lifestyles for their students, including more on-campus housing (many Japanese students live with their parents and endure punishing daily commutes). And they would learn to pay for this with innovations such as alumni fundraising and partnerships with companies. 

In other words, if Japan’s bureaucracy really loves the country’s universities, it should let them go free. No country ever micromanaged its way to a world-class higher education system.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Noah Smith at nsmith150@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net