Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Japanese University Crisis

By Anthony Hennen

The United States is not the only country plagued with problems in higher education; Japan has challenges of its own to overcome, albeit of a different variety. Lack of enrollment for private universities is threatening bankruptcy or mergers. The Chronicle reports that
“According to the ministry of education, 47 percent of Japan's roughly 550 private four-year universities are falling below their government-set recruitment targets, the highest ever figure. Over 40 percent are reportedly in debt, and many are a bank loan away from the fate of St. Thomas, one of five Japanese colleges to stop accepting students this year.”
“Japan is running out of 18-year-olds.”
Public universities are not as affected due to students choosing private over public for reasons of prestige and perceived quality. How then, did private higher-education become such a mess? The article continues,
“Why did the government ignore the looming population crisis and continue to crank out licenses to the private-university sector, which has grown by a third since the late 1980s? Some in the industry blame free-market fundamentalism.”
“The result is over-competition. And they [the government] have ruled out a rescue scheme or a bailout. A shakeout is inevitable," says Hiromitsu Takizawa, senior analyst at the Research Institute for Independent Higher Education, a think tank run by the Association of Private Universities of Japan.
Is this actually a problem that restricting licenses to universities would fix? It would restrict the growth of the private sector in higher education assuredly, but it would limit competition and ease the burden of improving the quality of education at the remaining universities. A shakeout occurring in the food sector with restaurants would not be met with a demand for the government to bail out failing restaurants; why should a bailout (that probably would not work) be used in the education sector?

But the emphasis on the government coming to the rescue of universities ignores the root of the problem.
"The No. 1 problem is demographics. There just aren't enough students to go around,” Kathy Yamane, director of St. Thomas University’s Center for Cross-Cultural Exchange said.
Attracting foreign students does not appear to be the end-all solution, either.
"Many small private colleges have an unofficial ceiling on students from Asia of 10 percent," says an official at the troubled Tokyo Fuji University, who also requested anonymity. "Accept more, and the reputation of the college declines. It becomes self-defeating because Japanese students start believing the college is poor."
“Excessive competition” is the scapegoat and distracts attention away from a stable solution. An overview of the structure of Japan’s higher education system can be found here.

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