New universities are big business, needed or not

Japan Times Nov. 18, 2012

People who use the Tokyu Toyoko Line, which connects Tokyo and Yokohama, may wonder why there are stations called Toritsu-Daigaku and Gakugei-Daigaku when there are no daigaku (universities) near them. There used to be a Gakugei Daigaku (Tokyo Gakugei University) but it moved to Koganei in 1964. There were plans to build a Toritsu Daigaku (Tokyo Metropolitan University), but they were never realized. In fact, if you look at any train line map in Japan you’re bound to find at least one station with daigaku or gakuen (academy) in the name. Former Seibu president Yoshiaki Tsutsumi supposedly named one station on the Seibu Ikebukuro Line Oizumi Gakuen because he wanted to persuade universities to open campuses in the area. None did. The name remained, however, as did Hitotsubashi-Gakuen on the Seibu Tamako Line, even though the school never took the bait.
Universities represent prestige, which is why so many local governments — and developers — try to attract them to their regions. It’s an industry, though no longer a growth one, and the new Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, Makiko Tanaka, found herself on the bad side of that industry when she exercised her ministerial prerogatives two weeks ago and refused to approve the opening of three new schools. In order to operate as a four-year institution of higher learning, an educational entity must first be vetted by a panel of experts and then approved by the education minister, but Tanaka thought there were “problems” with the three schools’ business plans and withheld approval. The universities had assumed this process was nothing more than a formality and had already accepted students for their first terms. They accused Tanaka of political grandstanding. In the end, she was forced to reverse her decision and grant approval.

A number of publications have run articles in the last week asserting that Tanaka was right in withholding approval. When the story first broke, the tenor of the coverage implied that Tanaka was making headlines for the sake of headlines; that she simply wanted to reinforce her image as the only major politician who stands up to entrenched bureaucratic interests. The three aggrieved institutions adopted this narrative to fight back, as did the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, which didn’t need an excuse to complain about a member of the cabinet.
But since Tanaka’s about-face under pressure, several media outlets have pointed out that while the famous daughter of Kakuei Tanaka, one of the most powerful prime ministers ever, rarely does anything that doesn’t boost her brand, some pundits were too quick to reference the last time she took on the bureaucracy. In 2002, she was forced to resign as foreign minister after publicly criticizing the ministry’s excessive budgetary outlays. As evidenced by the famous tears she shed in front of TV cameras, she seemed genuinely shocked by the backlash of people she supposedly supervised as well as then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s decision to take their side.

This time the situation is different. Rather than disavow their nominal boss’ controversial remarks, education ministry officials took responsibility, as if they were trying to help her save face. In a discussion of the matter on NHK radio, one pundit brought up Tanaka’s comment during the 2002 incident about how “someone was stepping on my skirt.” In this situation, the pundit said, it’s as if Tanaka “stepped on her own skirt and the ministry was trying to help her mend it.” The weekly Aera went even further, theorizing that the ministry actively encouraged Tanaka’s action, since it understands that the certification process is meaningless, and while it was planning to approve these three schools all along, it saw an opportunity to float the possibility of making the standards for approval stricter in the future.

As Tokyo Shimbun pointed out, Tanaka’s initial disapproval wasn’t wrong, just ill-timed, since the three schools were already in operational mode. Tanaka’s move nevertheless spurred the media to report that it didn’t make sense to approve more universities when the population was dropping and 46 percent of private universities are unable to enroll as many students as they need, a portion that gets larger every year. In 1991, the government relaxed regulations for private universities. At the time there were 523. Now there are 783, and a dozen new ones are approved every year.

While many of these institutions will fail in the near future due to falling enrollment and, thus, lack of funds — 40 percent of private universities operate in the red and Tokyo Shimbun predicts at least 100 will go bankrupt in the next decade — four-year schools still receive government subsidies, which encourages vocational schools and two-year junior colleges to upgrade, since young people have been convinced that they have no chance for meaningful work unless they possess a four-year degree. More than 50 percent of high school graduates go on to college now, and while the The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development claims that’s well below the average for developed countries, the matriculation rate in 1960 was only 8 percent. Consequently, an increasing number of institutions are hedging their bets by becoming full-fledged universities since it’s so easy to do. They’ll worry about the ever-increasing competition for bodies later.

Besides, as the railway examples show, just adopting the word “university” invites respect. The weekly Shincho reported that the three schools Tanaka initially rejected have easy acceptance standards, meaning they take anyone who can pay. Only the “Top 50 private universities” in the country actually use testing and grades to determine eligibility. In that sense, these schools, which don’t have to do anything to earn accreditation except carry out the application process, are like the students they attract — underachievers who don’t know what to do with themselves, so why not go the university route?



“ Traditional colleges are on their way to extinction and it’s about time. They are extortionate in their costs – and everyone knows it – given the technology we have today.”

— Mary Duffield

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