OECD calls for reforms of J universities – but are they the right reforms?

OECD’s call for reforms centre mainly on national universities in Japan being allowed to raise tuition fee limits — sound a little fishy to me … tuition fees are higher in western OECD countries (except for socialist welfare ones which offer free education like in France where you can go to college free and the UK where students are so highly subsidised that college tuition for UK citizens is ridiculously cheap compared to what foreign students have to pay) … these calls smack of overseas universities trying to compete for a bigger share of the education market in Japan.

Parents who send their kids to tuition-run colleges and universities are already burdened by the ever-rising tuition fees that they have to fork out for their kids’ education —  especially in the US. Typically, parents who enrol their kids in a higher educational institution are looking to pay between 2 – 5% more on the annual tuition fee in the following years than that was pegged in year one when they matriculated. In the real world, our (parents – the average working man’s) salaries don’t rise in that fashion.

Although it is true as the OECD report points out that kids with families that are wealthy tend to dominate at national universities, these national universities — but kids from families with financial resources will always dominate quality educational institutions everywhere, whether public or private. The kids do well by virtue of the fact that wealthier parents can afford afterschool cramschools, and other educational resources. Nevertheless, these national universities still provide the most level playing fields possible for bright and ambitious students without financial resources. Without the cheaper national universities, where would they be? Fees of private universities are exhorbitant — to put the tuition fee barrier up further would ensure that higher educational opportunities are altogether locked away for less financially endowed students. As it is, scholarships for students in Japan are far harder to come by than in other OECD countries. 

Yes, reforms in higher education and in public national universities are needed, but just not this particular one highlighted in the report. As for competitiveness rankings of the top national universities, their rankings would improve considerably if they were able to improve access for foreign students and foreign academics to teach in the institutions. There are other factors for raising the competitiveness of Japanese universities in international rankings such as the need to improve academic quality and student performance, and most importantly in terms of raising the international profile of universities is perhaps the need to increase the amount of research papers published (and published internationally) by the universities, but these relate to internal or institutional cultural factors as well as the language barriers, and are not relevant to the issue of raising tuition fee limit. 

No, raising the tuition fee limit is like a suicidal call for any political party especially in the face of economic times like these.

OECD calls on Japan to reform accelerate reforms in higher education

Kyoko Takita / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer

Japan should accelerate the reform of its higher education system to cope with globalization and changes in the labor market, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has concluded in a recent report.

The report, OECD Reviews of Tertiary Education: Japan, has been compiled by a group of five experts, headed by Howard Newby, vice chancellor of Britain’s University of Liverpool. The experts wrote the report based on a visit to Japan in May 2006 as well as documents submitted by the Education, Science and Technology Ministry.

The experts focused on how Japan’s higher education had changed since 2004, when national universities became independent administrative institutions.

The report points out that although the change brought increased institutional governing powers to national universities, the ministry still retains its traditional role of controlling enrollment numbers, tuition fees and the reorganization of departments.

The report also criticizes the ministry for setting standard annual tuition limits to prevent national universities from exceeding certain levels when charging students. Instead, it recommends they are allowed greater flexibility when setting fees.

The report points out that one reason for its recommendation is that the majority of students at major national universities in Japan tend to be children of wealthy parents and many graduates of these institutions enjoy higher incomes after graduation.

At the same time, the report also touches on the low level of governmental funding to tertiary institutions in Japan. To secure equitable opportunities for tertiary study for students from low-income families, the reports calls for the ministry to improve the student loan system to allow borrowers to pay back their loans after graduation with loan repayments based on their income.

According to the report, 60 percent of all expenditure for students in tertiary education came from private sources in Japan–the highest among the OECD participating countries, whose average stood just at 17 percent. In Japan, public funding covered only 40 percent–the second lowest after South Korea–compared to an OECD average of 76 percent.

Naoki Himiya, a senior official at the ministry, has countered the report’s recommendations. “One of the major roles of our national universities is to educate prospective public servants for our country,” he says. “That wouldn’t fit well with a philosophy where the beneficiary should bear the cost.” As in the past, he adds, national universities should secure equitable access to higher education by holding down tuition fees.

Prof. Fujio Omori of Kumamoto University, an expert on higher education systems around the world, points out that Japanese universities are not yet widely recognized overseas.

“The OECD report offers us a chance to look into how the nation’s higher educational institutions can improve their performances to compete against their counterparts overseas,” he says.


Jun. 25, 2009

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