Posted on January 18, 2008

Desperately Seeking Students

Jessica Shepherd, Guardian Unlimited (Manchester), January 15, 2008

Almost every day, scores of desperate teenagers tune in to Nippon Housou Kyokai—Japan’s equivalent of the BBC. Not for some light relief from schoolwork, but for a show that helps them to cram for tough university entrance exams.

For how much longer though? Japan has one of the oldest and most well-respected higher education systems in Asia. But these days it is in crisis.

Up to 40% of Japan’s 744 universities could go bust, merge or close in the next 10 years, according to research by a British professor at Oxford, out later this year.

Decades of falling birthrates have shrunk the number of 18-year-olds, who provide 90% of all university entrants, down to 1.3 million last year from 2.05 million in 1992. With no baby boom or immigration influx on the horizon, the figure is expected to further plummet to 1.18 million by 2012—an overall decrease of 42.3% over 20 years.

Japan’s universities increasingly struggle to fill their government-authorised number of places, says Roger Goodman, professor of modern Japanese studies at Oxford. His study on Japanese education will be published in a chapter of a book called The Demographic Challenge: A Handbook About Japan. “The Japanese higher education system is facing a contraction, possibly better described as an implosion, of a type never seen before,” he says.

Nearly 75% of Japan’s universities are private and run four- or two-year courses. They are considered second-class to the country’s 87 national universities, which makes them most vulnerable to student recruitment problems.

And vulnerable they are. Goodman reveals that 30% of four-year private universities had failed to fill their student quota in 2004. The figure was 40% for two-year universities. And this when the real demographic drop has not yet kicked in.

The Japanese government is quite happy to let the market decide how the system is “hollowed out”, says Goodman. “It has no intention of baling these universities out.

“The result is that many institutions—estimates suggest between 15% and 40%—will go bankrupt, merge or be taken over by larger universities within the next decade,” he says.

“Universities in Japan are on the brink,” agrees Ian Reader, professor of Japanese studies at Manchester University. “There is increasing stress across the higher education sector there.”

No one is saying how many mergers, closures or takeovers have already taken place or are on the cards. But a particularly high-profile case is Hagi International University, which sought court protection for bankruptcy in 2005. Hagi was bought by a construction firm and relaunched last year as an institution specialising in the health sciences.

What implications does all this have for the quality of degrees in the east Asian giant, which is home to three universities ranked in the world’s top 60—Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka?

“The pinch is coming at the lower end of the prestige scale,” says Reader. “As numbers of potential students fall, the universities higher up the pecking order are drawing more of their intake from groups that would have gone to lower-ranked universities. The less prestigious universities are especially having a hard time.”

Goodman predicts that entry to the lower-level private universities will become a “free pass”. Half of students already no longer need to sit an exam to get in, he says.

“Institutions will end up admitting lower-ability students with little or no motivation to study simply because they need their fees, which make up about 80% of the university’s income.

“Japan’s leading national universities will continue to be protected by state support. The leading private universities will continue to be protected by their reputation and alumni networks. But rural, public and local universities and lower-level private universities face a bleak future, if indeed they have a future at all.”

It’s bad planning that has let this happen, argues Andrew Gerstle, professor of Japanese studies at London’s School of African and Oriental Studies.

The Japanese government has let the number of universities rise since the 1990s, knowing full well there was a demographic disaster looming.

There was a 30% increase in the number of universities in the 1990s because of a liberalisation of the sector. Colleges thought it was their last chance to obtain university status. Then, between 2000 and 2006, the number of universities grew further from 649 to 744.

The education attache of the Japanese embassy in London, Takahiro Okamoto, accepts that there is going to be an oversupply of universities. But Okamoto told Education Guardian the Japanese government was creating a “safety net”, which included mergers and planning for transferrals of students between institutions.

“To survive the global competition among universities, each institution in Japan is trying to create a unique selling point for itself,” he says. “For example, there are universities that focus on attracting office workers to study part-time and those that are trying to recruit as many foreign students as they can.”

Japanese universities are also starting to teach classes in English in a last-ditch attempt to recruit students from outside Japan. Waseda University is one example. Its international studies faculty now runs the majority of lectures in English.

Japan’s predicament might ring alarm bells for those in the know in the UK. The number of our 18-year-olds is predicted to fall dramatically between 2010 and 2019 because of fewer births in the 1990s. By 2019, there will be 120,000 fewer school-leavers in the population than a decade earlier. By 2050, the proportion of 15- to 24-year-olds will make up just 11% of the population. It was 16% in 1990.

There is no need for apocalyptic visions of much-loved institutions going under. Ours is, by all accounts, a far less dramatic situation than that faced in Japan.

And anyway, our universities faced a similar emergency to Japan’s in the 1980s and responded successfully by increasing the range of graduate courses and opening doors to more part-time, mature and overseas students.

But, all the same, are there any lessons we can learn from Japan?

In many ways, our HE sector has mitigated against disaster, argues Professor Sir David Watson, chair of higher education management at the Institute of Education. “Fewer than 50% of our students are full-time, young and taking their first degrees.”

A Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) paper, Demand for Higher Education to 2020 and Beyond, argued that closing the gender gulf by getting more boys into university was crucial to maintaining and expanding numbers in the sector. But the thinktank’s director, Bahram Bekhradnia, does not think the demographic decline we face poses a threat to the majority of institutions.

Those that could be hit, reckons Gerstle, are the less prestigious, the recently founded and those in rural areas.

In other words, it’s more than likely we’ll be all right. The same cannot be said on the other side of the world.