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Rethinking university policy

Julian Ryall, TokyoNovember 6, 2015

Japan's education ministry claims reports that it was ordering universities to scrap subjects such as philosophy and political science are a "misunderstanding." But 26 schools are still doing away with the courses.

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Image: AFP/Getty Images

The letters sent by Japan's education minister, Hakubun Shimomura, in June to all of the country's 86 national universities were fairly clear and specific, or so it was believed. The minister requested that the institutions take "active steps to abolish [social sciences and humanities] departments or to convert them to serve areas that better meet society's needs."

Specifically, state-funded universities were told to focus the cull on programs that train teachers and on those such as economics and law faculties.

The justification for the move, Shimomura wrote, was that, "in light of the decrease in the university-age population, the demand for human resources and ... the functions of national universities."

And as a reminder to the universities, the minister's message underlined the fact that each of the institutions rely on the central government for funding. That heavy-handed hint was not missed and 26 universities declared that they would be phasing out their humanities and social sciences programs in the coming years.

Rapid and growing reaction

The response from industry, academia, the media and society was swift and has grown in the months since the minister's declaration.

The Japan Association of National Universities objected to the move, as did The Science Council of Japan, which represents a sector that would actually benefit from the government's policy.

Japan Sport- und BildungsministerHakubun Shimomura
Shimomura's message to universities in June underlined the fact that each of the institutions rely on the government for fundingImage: Getty Images/AFP/Jiji Press

The council stated: "It is recognized more than ever today that there is a need for the natural sciences as well as the humanities and social sciences (HSS) to work closely together in order to produce a more comprehensive knowledge base that can respond to the various challenges facing us today."

"The HSS are integral to such a process," the council added, stressing that "they play a vital and unique role in critically comparing, contrasting and reflecting on the way in which human beings and society operate."

Keidanren, the federation of Japanese businesses, was also quick to react, with the lobby group's chairman Sadayuki Sakakibara saying that Japanese companies desire "exactly the opposite" of the government's efforts to channel all higher education into a narrow area.

Instead, Japanese firms need students who are able to function by embracing "ideas encompassing the different fields" of science and the humanities, Sakakibara noted.

One of the fiercest criticisms of the policy came in an editorial published in The Japan Times. "Pursuing studies of humanities and social sciences may not produce quick economic results, but shunning them risks producing people who are only interested in the narrow fields of their majors," it said.

'A critical eye'

"Studies of literature, history, philosophy and social sciences are indispensable in creating people who can view developments in society and politics with a critical eye," the editorial added. "In this sense, Shimomura's move may be interpreted as an attempt by the government to produce people who accept what it does without criticism."

The attacks on the policy did not go unnoticed at the education ministry and in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which some have accused of attempting to introduce more patriotism into education and that Shimomura's move was another effort to eradicate wishy-washy liberalism from curriculums.

The backlash has triggered a change in thinking, although the ministry denies it has climbed down, with a spokeswoman telling DW that a new document released on October 1 is designed to "clear up these misunderstandings."

The new document insists that many of the claims made against the initial policy are "untrue" and it adds: "The importance of versatility cultivated by liberal arts education is indeed growing in an era that calls for the autonomous ability to seek out solutions to problems without definite answers."

Academics not convinced

Academics in Japan, however, are not convinced by the ministry's protestations.

"The original plan was to transform education in the liberal arts to turn out students who could work in business, but the vast majority of universities were strongly opposed, as were big companies and industrial organizations," Makoto Watanabe, a lecturer in communications and media at Hokkaido Bunkyo University, told DW.

"The level of opposition surprised the ministry and forced them to climb down," he believes.

Japan Fußgänger in Tokio
Japanese firms need students who are able to function by embracing 'ideas encompassing the different fields' of science and the humanities, said SakakibaraImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"Clearly there are some people in the Liberal Democratic Party and the ministry who think this is a good idea, but abolishing subjects such as sociology and philosophy just because they are not useful in business is incredibly short-sighted," he said.

"Fortunately, society has shown the bureaucrats and the politicians that business and making money is not everything in a society," Watanabe added.

Still, others - including some in state-funded universities whose own areas of education are potentially at risk - are not completely opposed to the changes.

"I do not believe the reforms will have nearly as much of an impact as many are claiming," said Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University.

"I have spoken with officials from the ministry and they have assured me that their priority is to secure jobs for graduates," he added. "People who study philosophy or French literature do not easily find jobs and don't contribute much to society. This would be beneficial to them."