Higher education in Japan – current challenges

Higher Education in JapanJapan has been frequently featuring media during the last two months, since the tragic earthquake on March 11, 2011 that has taken countless lives and created destruction beyond imaginable. While great attention has been paid to the courageous attempts to keep the nuclear plants under control and avoid even greater catastrophe, the aftermath of this crisis has also had a major impact on higher education, as on all other spheres of society.

Japan has been through quite significant changes in recent decades. Being a huge success story during the 80s through production of high-tech, consumer electronics and car industry, Japan faced an economic downturn during the 90s. From societal perspective, one of the more striking features is the significantly aging population, and a recent OECD report on tertiary education in Japan indicated that by 2050, the population will have decreased by 25%, this rapid shift is already taking place and is having major consequences for the whole society.

Japanese higher education system is characterized by a large private sector and a high participation rate, where expansion has been achieved through diversification of institutional missions (OECD 2009). From governance perspective, Japanese higher education system has been described as a hybrid system, characterised by policy borrowing/learning from both the US and Germany, as argued by Tom Christensen in a recent article in Higher Education Policy.  Christensen provides a thorough examination of the various reforms that have taken place in Japan this far, and argues that the reform trends can be characterised both by New Public Management (NPM), but also post-NPM trends. These trends are characterised by focus on efficiency and effectiveness, institutional leadership, competition and management.

The article further examines the recent 2004 university reform, arguably initiated by a sense of crisis and that universities are partly to blame for  the economic stagnation Japan had faced. The new reform was characterised by Christensen as a “hybrid between the agency form (IAIs) and the corporate form“. However, the 2004 reform has also received criticisms, amongst else in the OECD report where it was argued that the deregulation policies: “enshrine short-term goals of cost-reduction and efficiency gains but do not address the longer-term investment needs for the sector, nor its future size, shape and structure“. It is further argued that while much has been done, more focus can be put to long-term thinking in the reform processes.

The rapid aging of the population has led to challenges for the institutions and it could be assumed that the already competitive environment is even further complicated by the ever decreasing student population. In the usual elite-mass-universal division, Japan reached universal access relatively early, and according to a fresh article published in Higher Education – the Japanese pathway to universal access does not match the definitions proposed by Martin Trow. Nevertheless, this system is now facing a decline. In order to supplement for the declining student numbers nationally, Japan has stated high ambitions to attract more international students. A recent University World News (UWN) article indicates that the stated goal was 300 000 international students from the current 141 000.  The current catastrophe has however undermined this goal, with many students leaving the country, and the UWN article refers to a survey by a Japanese newspaper which reported high levels of concern amongst international students. In order for Japan to be able to double the international student population, quick measures have to be taken to again attract foreign students. The difficult question is how to do this in practice.

From theoretical literature we know that times of crisis can provide a fertile ground for implementing new reforms and changing current institutional structures. As the OECD report argued: “de-regulation should not be mistaken as the absence of strategic, systemic planning“. Perhaps this difficult time can provide a time to think more carefully through the future of Japanese higher education?