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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:03 03/09/2007
May 30, 2002

Changes in Japan's Higher Education System

Taizo YAKUSHIJI (Professor, Keio University)


Prof. Taizo YakushijiThe Postwar Reforms of Japanese Universities
In prewar Japan only 3 per cent of the population received a university education. Today, more than 75 per cent of high school students go on to university. During the Allied Occupation of Japan after World War II, the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP) maintained that prewar Japan was undemocratic since 3 per cent of the Japanese elite filled the top positions in the various social, economic and political spheres of society. The Allied Occupation dismantled Japan's military and bureaucratic institutions, transforming the prewar higher education system to become more popular and democratic.

Japan's higher education system had been based on the German system. There were exceptions, however, such as the private universities of Keio and Doshisha, whose founders, Yukichi Fukuzawa and Jo Niijima, had Anglo-American backgrounds. In Germany, interestingly, the four allied powers did not touch the education system, despite it being undemocratic and divisive. In Germany today children go to either the elite gymnasium schools or the non-elite fachschule (vocational schools) at the age of 10. Although based on the German system, the Japanese education system was more egalitarian and less divisive. The seven imperial universities (nana teidai) and eight national hochschulen were located throughout Japan, although the most prestigious private universities were mainly in the large cities such as Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. Although only 3 per cent of high school students could go on to university in the prewar period, the next most accomplished students could enter the second level of prestigious institutions, such as teachers colleges (shihan gakko), technishehochschulen (higher commercial colleges or koutou kougyo senmon gakko), commercial colleges (koutou shougyo senmon gakko) and medical colleges (igaku senmongakou). Those who graduated from such colleges moved into positions that served the nation's modernisation and development aims until the end of World War II.

The Allied Occupation upgraded the status of these national colleges to that of universities. The status of the seven imperial universities remained unchanged; the only change was the deletion of the word imperial. In addition eight national colleges were absorbed into the arts and sciences liberal colleges (kyoyo gakubu or bunri gakubu) of the seven former imperial universities and the next most prestigious national universities, such as Hiroshima, Kumamoto and Kagoshima. These initial reforms increased the number of national universities to meet the aim of having at least one national university in each prefecture. This was the Japanese interpretation of the US policy of having at least one state university in each state. In 2000 there were 99 national universities, 72 public (prefectural or municipal) universities and 478 private universities in Japan. The GHQ reforms were highly successful in popularising Japanese higher education, but they also created problems by diluting the quality of university research and education.

Recent Reforms The Top 30 Project
For many years Japanese universities have been criticised for their poor quality and lack of international competitiveness in higher education and basic research. Graduates from Chinese and Korean universities are more competitive than Japanese graduates in entering prestigious American universities such as Harvard, MIT and Stanford. In 2001 the Institute of Managerial Development in Switzerland ranked Japanese university education 49th in the world (Asahi Shimbun, 12 December 2001). When a former president of the University of Tokyo was sent a questionnaire from an Asian university accreditation organisation, he refused to fill it out. His reason was not clear: perhaps he wanted to preserve the prestige of his university or feared being ranked lower than other Japanese universities (as had happened before). A recent Asian accreditation report shows that most Japanese universities are ranked lower than other Asian universities, such as the National University of Singapore or the University of Hong Kong.

Aware of these quality problems, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) launched the 'Top 30 Project'. The project aims to select Japan's 30 best universities, regardless of national, public or private status, whose quality of research and education meet international standards. This project created a huge controversy, as many national universities feared they would not be chosen in the top 30. Smaller specialised universities such as Hitotsubashi University, Tokyo Institute of Technology, Tokyo University of Foreign Language and Tokyo Medical and Dental University, feared that MEXT would reduce their numbers. These universities have only a single faculty or limited number of specialised faculties, or are located in remote prefectures, putting them at a disadvantage in terms of industry links. The presidents of these smaller universities formed a group opposed to MEXT'S Top 30 Project. In order to avoid such controversy, MEXT stopped using the term 'Top 30 Project', renaming it the 'Plan of Centres of Excellency for the 21st Century of Japanese Higher Education'. The Ministry's aim remained the same, however.

Japanese universities have responded independently to the Ministry's aims by taking initiatives to collaborate or to unify. For example, Saitama University in Saitama prefecture, which has a strong teachers college and faculty of liberal arts, is collaborating with Gunma University in Gunma prefecture, which has a strong medical school. In northern Japan, Akita University in Akita prefecture, Yamagata University in Yamagata prefecture and Iwate University in Iwate prefecture have begun tripartite talks over future collaboration or unification. Hitotsubashi University, Tokyo Institute of Technology and Tokyo Medical and Dental University started research collaboration on medical economics and medical engineering. They have adopted cross-registration, which is very common in American universities and colleges but uncommon in Japan where each university sets a separate entrance examination. If an applicant fails the entrance examination for Tokyo Medical and Dental University but passes the examination for the Tokyo Institute of Technology, he or she could take courses at both institutions or obtain multiple degrees in engineering and medicine. Cross-registration provides tremendous opportunities for students.

Changes in Politics or Changes in Society's Needs?
Universities throughout the world are ranked through accreditation and by prestige. In the United States, university applicants refer to accreditation books published by private organisations and check university Web sites to decide where to apply. However, what applicants most want to know is whether their career will be better off if they attend a particular department or university. Prestige is very important in selecting a university. Universities themselves are concerned with both accreditation and social ranking. The 'prestige' attaches to both students and professors. In terms of benefits to society, tertiary education should provide a high standard of knowledge and skills with which graduates can serve society, either national or international. Their occupational or social position will depend on their role in society.

In the prewar period, Japanese higher education served as a recruiting vehicle to find the best and brightest from all over Japan, regardless of social and economic background. The Meiji government established a national education system using tax revenues. Fukuzawa and Niijima had different views, believing that higher education should be freed from social and political pressure. They founded unique educational institutions based on the Western philosophy of liberty in learning. They also had a strong motivation to supply social elites. Keio and Doshisha Universities, later joined by Shigenobu Okuma's Waseda University, have been major suppliers of social elites and still follow the unique philosophy of their founders (kengaku no seishin). This is in stark contrast to the national and municipal universities whose only function is to supply the best and brightest graduates to society. Since they need not follow a particular philosophy, they select students by ranking applicants on the basis of an entrance exam. Since both national and private universities set difficult examinations, applicants choose a university, regardless of national or private status, according to whether they think they can pass the exam. Students admitted to a national university do not develop a particular attachment to their alma mater, whereas those who graduate from private universities maintain a strong attachment. But such strong loyalties are established after, not before, students are admitted.

The established division of labour between the 99 national universities and the 478 private universities will be broken by the Top 30 Project. The Government has stated that national universities should be more distinctive and financially accountable, like private universities. Private universities in Japan obtain finance from four main sources: 1) tuition fees; 2) income from university hospitals if they have one; 3) other monies earned by fund management (i.e., selling bonds and buying domestic and foreign securities); and 4) MEXT subsidies. MEXT subsidies, for example for operating costs, amount to only 320 billion yen for 478 private universities, whereas the 99 national universities receive a total of 2.8 trillion yen. The subsidy depends on the number of students enrolled and various financial conditions. Among the private universities, Nihon University receives the largest subsidy, followed by Keio and Waseda. Keio, for example, receives a 9 billion yen subsidy.

The government's demands for national universities to be unique and financially accountable are challenging for national universities, which differ only by their accreditation ranking and by the difficulty of their entrance examination. They are national simply because they are fully supported by the Treasury's Special Account for National Universities. National universities have a large number of personnel, who are designated as government officials. They employed a total of 60,000 teaching staff and 57,000 administrative staff in FY 2000. These universities spent 40 per cent (2,783 billion yen) of MEXT's budget of 6,580 billion yen in FY 2002. The Top 30 Project has been allocated 18.2 billion yen for FY 2002, which is quite small. Although Japan's current GDP is around 500 trillion yen, the budget deficit is 700 trillion yen, or 140 per cent of GDP. MEXT was formed from a merger of the former Agency of Science and Technology and the former Ministry of Education. Although this merger increased the education budget, MEXT has to meet rapidly rising staff costs. MEXT's stated rationale for selecting the 30 top universities was to enhance the quality of research and higher education, and make higher education more competitive. The real purpose, however, is to reduce the huge burden on the budget from funding the national universities. MEXT Minister Atsuko Tohyama recently told an assembly of national university presidents that they must consider the burden on taxpayers instead of their own selfish goal of protecting themselves (Asahi Shinbun, 17 December).

Japan's latest prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi has attempted to privatise the government's largest employer, the national postal service, as part of a commitment to small government. So far he has been unable to pass a law to implement privatisation. The next largest number of government staff (120,000 employees) work for the national universities. Despite fierce opposition from the union of national university employees, Koizumi announced that all national universities should be transformed into independent statutory bodies (dokuritsu gyousei hohjin), a status that brings tax benefits. Most private universities are already incorporated. The National Museum of Science and National Museum of Fine Arts, the National Entrance Examination Centre (a Japanese version of America's SAT or Bac in France) and many other national institutes have become dokuritsu gyousei hohjin, and it is only a matter of time until national universities follow suit. In response to Koizumi's goal, MEXT Minister Tohyama launched the 'Tohyama Plan', which later became the Top 30 Project. It has three components: 1) the integration and unification of the national universities; 2) the introduction of management skills based on those of private companies; and c) the introduction of third-party evaluation. These points represent a concrete interpretation of Koizumi's mandate that university resources should be used for structural reform. Koizumi has stated that Japanese universities should be internationally competitive; that Japan should be a large supplier of qualified staff; and that Japanese cities and localities should be revitalised by revitalised universities. The Top 30 Project is not only MEXT's inhouse plan, but also a reaction to Koizumi's political goals.

The 30 universities will be selected according to designated research areas, mostly in the natural sciences. Only one social science (areas studies) has been designated. MEXT will select the 30 best applications. MEXT has allocated science research funds (similar to America's NSF funds) of 170 billion yen for FY 2002. The top recipients of these funds were: 1) Tokyo, 2) Kyoto, 3) Osaka, 4) Tohoku, 5) Kyusyu, 6) Hokkaido, 7) Nagoya, 8) Tokyo Institute of Technology, 9) Hiroshima, 10) Tsukuba, 11) Okayama, 12) Kobe, 13) Keio, 14) Chiba, 15) Kumamoto, 16) Niigata, 17) Kanazawa, 18) Tokushima, 19) Nagasaki, 20) Tokyo Medical and Dental. There is only one private university in this group and all have either a medical school or a life science department.

What is the future for those universities without a medical school or life science department? This group will not be able to obtain permission from MEXT to open a new medical school or life science department, let alone recruit scientists and professors in a short time. In addition to obtaining authorisation from MEXT, a further barrier for government-subsidised national universities is the approval of the Treasury Ministry. The Ministry is facing a huge budget deficit and is unlikely to provide the necessary finance for expansion plans. The only practical solution is to merge groups of two or three national universities that already have either a medical school or a life science department. This is the best way to address the budget deficit and at the same time reduce the number of universities. MEXT has already elevated the status of 12 national universities from undergraduate universities to graduate universities (daigakuin juten-ka). If a university is designated a graduate university, its professors become graduate school professors and receive more research money. Although they have no obligation to do so, they teach undergraduate courses on an ad hoc basis. Japan's budget deficit makes it impossible to approve all applications for graduate university status, so the 12 already authorised national universities are therefore strong candidates for the top 30.

From a Society of Generalists to a Society of Skilled
Japanese society is a society of 'generalists' in that the top positions are taken by those who have no specific skills or specialisation but are able to tackle many different problems. Government officials move from one section to another every two or three years. Company managers move from one department to another until they become specialists, for example, in patents (homu), manpower (jinji), company accounts (zaimu) or parts purchasing (kobai). The rational is that the elite will compete against each other to reach the top. In this sense, Japanese society is very competitive. This system has its roots in the prewar era, where 3 per cent of the elite were selected without judgement simply because they went to the best universities. The next group was selected by merit of attending the prestigious hochschulen. Those who graduated from these colleges were regarded as highly educated specialists, while those who went to the best universities were designated elite generalists who could handle any task. The postwar generalist society encouraged people to work hard to become the elite and helped create the Japanese economic miracle. This competitive work culture is no longer efficient, however, because a job contest takes too long to select the best and the brightest.

The Japanese economy has been in a slump for many years and government corruption and company bankruptcies are rife. The blame for this crisis can be laid on the postwar generalist society. Although it worked well during the era of high growth when people worked hard and economic expansion was possible through the competitive job rotation system, the system encouraged excessive economic expansion, and therefore overproduction and a sharp decline in prices. The system was unable to adjust quickly to a downturn in the economy. Since the real elite could not be pre-selected, a large number of candidates for the elite behaved like the elite and, during a time of economic expansion, were assigned posts beyond their capabilities. This generation of Japanese generalists mishandled companies and mishandled government. Those outside the elite despised these people for their incompetence and started controlling them by specialising in areas that could not be touched by the elites, further increasing the corruption in the system.

It seems that Japanese society is now becoming a skilled society rather than a society of generalists. One indication of this shift is the government's attempt to create a graduate law school and other specialised graduate schools such as a public policy school and a business school. Until recently the national bar examination had been very tough because the number of lawyers was strictly limited. The government recently increased the allocation to 1,000, and there are plans to further increase the number to an upper limit of 3,000. Applicants to the bar exam are normally undergraduate students or those who have already graduated. The most recent statistics (as of 2001) show the following pass rates: 1) 206 Tokyo University students; 2) 187 Waseda University students; 3) 100 Keio University students; 4) 90 Kyoto University students; 5) 76 Chyuo University students; and 6) 36 Hitotsubashi students. This is another way of ranking universities. As with the Top 30 Project, the government will select which university can have a law school, and regardless of graduate or undergraduate level, only 3,000 people can become lawyers.

It is too early to judge where these reforms are taking Japanese higher education. The controversies surrounding the law school and the Top 30 Project indicate that Japan is experimenting with creating a new social elite a type of Japanese Ivy League. We don't know whether this elite will be lawyers with a higher education, or researchers who are internationally competitive. The government appears to be trying to revive the 3 per cent definition of the elite, but these people are not the top generalists who are needed to guide the nation. When the direction is not clear, the real elite of generalists should be allowed to lead the way. The concern is that the government will not create the second tier of prestigious elite schools that will provide a varied education and skilled graduates. Japanese higher education is not yet been moving in this direction.

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