Education reform: Japan’s great enAbeler. Is the third arrow on target?


Japan’s acute demographic crisis has been unfolding for 20 years. On the one hand, the worldwide fertility rate has halved, over the past 50 years, from five children per family to 2.5. That reflects positive developments in infant mortality and lifespan. But Japan’s demographic decline is in a class of its own. The Japanese government estimates that its population will continue to fall, from the current 127.5m to 117m by 2030 and 97m in 2050. It is worse in the context of higher education: the 18-23 cohort was 12m in 1995 and will decline to just over 7m in 2020.

The steep decline in fertility and the ageing population mean a smaller workforce. Per capita GDP has fallen from second in the world to 27th. Twenty percent of next year’s university graduates (more than 100,000) will be without a secure job. The government’s response to the endless slump is Abenomics, PM Shinzo Abe’s programme for economic revitalisation. The ‘third arrow’ of Abenomics, a growth strategy, was announced in June this year during an election campaign.

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In a series of newspaper interviews, education minister Hakubun Shimomura has spelled out the role of higher education in realising the national strategy. He noted the need to make the country’s universities ‘more competitive globally’ by fostering technological innovation and moving beyond Japan’s traditional strengths in automobiles and electronics into areas like medicine and health care. In April the ruling party’s education reform panel presented Abe with proposed measures to double the number of science and mathematics doctorates to 35,000 a year and a ¥500bn ($5bn) spend to supply tablet computers to all public schools. The ultimate aim is the development of ‘global human resources’; Shimomura notes that Japanese higher education does not foster global talent.

Like every other government, Japan’s has an eye on the international rankings. Japan has two universities in the Times Higher top 100 (Tokyo and Kyoto), three in the Academic Rankings (Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka), and six in the QS list. The QS rankings show these institutions dropping on average three places a year, and there have been no new entrants in the last three years. The education reform panel says the target should be 10 in the top 100 within a decade.

Internationalising the HE sector is seen as the way to get there. The government wants Japanese universities to increase the number of international academic staff, raise the number of classes conducted in English, make TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) mandatory for entrance exams at all Japanese universities, double the number of students coming to Japan and double those going to study abroad.

After a few years of modest growth, the number of international students in Japan has stagnated. There were about 100,000 in 2003 and 138,000 in 2012. Their proportion of the student body is 3%, compared to the OECD average of 7%. Between 2011 and 2012, the largest group, from China, shrank by 1.4% and the number of Koreans fell by 5.6%. Shimomura attributes this partly to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Outward mobility is modest (about 60,000) and has been falling since 2004, which he attributes to the ‘inward-looking passivity’ and poor English of Japanese youth. A survey of students this year attributed it to the language barrier and the cost of a foreign education. Only one-third of students indicated willingness to study abroad and the rest expressed reluctance. On the other hand, the latter proportion was fractionally down on 2011. Women were slightly more likely to favour studying abroad. The government wishes to double the outbound number, and ICEF reports that the country is currently funding 10,000 Japanese university students in short-term international placements (mainly language programmes in places like Australia and Canada). Further down the foodchain, the number of high school students abroad in 2012 was almost double the previous year.

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Current trends suggest that Japan will fall well short of its 2020 target of 300,000 incoming international students, which was announced in 2008 by the government in a ‘Global 30’ recruitment and internationalisation initiative. For the Global 30 project, 13 universities (seven national and six private) were designated for degree provision fully in English, for foreign faculty recruitment and for money to pay for it (though the number of universities was reduced from 30, apparently because of budget cuts). International student recruitment at these universities has bucked the trend and is now double the number in 2008. The number of foreign academic staff has likewise increased at the 13 institutions; the number is still small (3,100 in March 2013) and constitutes about half the number across the whole sector. As of April 2013, 155 new degree programmes fully in English had been introduced.

Japan’s term dates have been identified as an obstacle to international student recruitment. It was announced last year that Tokyo University would shift the beginning of its academic year from spring to autumn but it retreated after domestic opposition and decided instead to try a four-term system of two months each starting in March 2015.

Following in the footsteps of Canada, Australia and the UK, in mid-2012 Japan launched a points-based immigration system to give preferential treatment and incentives for ‘highly skilled foreign professionals’ such as IT and technology engineers, researchers and executives. In the first year the system netted 434 people, while the target was 2,000. Clearly work to do there, notably in the prohibitive salary requirements: for top points a salary on application of ¥10m ($100k) is required; the lowest pay band specified is ¥4-5m ($40-50k). Bonus points can be had for proficiency in Japanese or a Japanese degree.

Japan had has a rough ride for two decades, though that may not explain why it took it eyes off the higher education ball for so long. It is now clear that the internationalisation of higher education has the attention of the government at the top level. Japan has opted for a series of policies based on emulation of what has gone before elsewhere, which itself seems radical for a country with so much cultural particularity.

Alastair Large & William Lawton

Alastair Large is an analyst at i-graduate