Last June, Japan’s education minister wrote to the presidents of the country’s 86 elite national universities telling them to abolish their undergraduate and graduate schools devoted to the humanities and social sciences, or shift their curricula to fields the government thinks have “greater utilitarian value”.
Even for a government counting its yen to pay for the pensions and social security of its ageing population and to send its soldiers off to foreign fields, this was a ludicrous demand.
Three months later, facing a backlash, the education ministry claimed that the order was misinterpreted. It was not seeking abolition of the humanities, but merely wanted more “efficiency” and graduates “with skills to excel in a global environment”. Sadly, Japan is making too many mistakes.
One error is to invent a dichotomy between humanities and sciences. Another is to assume that university learning can be subjected to a government efficiency index. More egregious is the Abe government’s belief that it can change the world by edict. Japan’s universities, with the exceptions of Tokyo and Kyoto, are not in the global league and do not understand what makes a university internationally competitive.
The best global universities offer a forum for a meeting of great minds, from arts, philosophy and science, conversing, competing, clashing with each other. Japanese universities fall short, especially in international understanding.
Behind the government wish for “efficiency” is the belief that science education is a sausage machine into which you can put 100 yen and get a pound, or preferably a kilo, of immediately marketable product. But, as scientists constantly point out, path-breaking scientific research rarely responds to government mantras or the budget slot machine. Even where science brings practical benefits, the road is twisted and tortuous.
Given the increasing insularity of Japanese youngsters, hiding behind their electronic devices, Japan needs the humanities more than ever: a sound grounding in English and Chinese, the history of civilisation and philosophy should be essential learning, especially for scientists and engineers. Most new graduates will become managers, salesmen and bureaucrats, who need to look beyond their immediate horizons.
In the 11 years since Japan’s national universities were corporatised, bureaucrats have dedicated themselves to revising the rules to entrench their powers. Too many Japanese university presidents are promoted professors who lack management skills, making them prey to this bureaucracy. Take Osaka University, of which Toshio Hirano, a distinguished immunology researcher, became president in 2011. He was full of ideas, and determined to force Osaka into the global top 10. But he was stymied by bureaucracy, his own autocracy and tightening government funding. His decisions to cut academic salaries and transfer 1 per cent of the university hospital profits to the university as a whole helped him to a defeat in last year’s election, when he sought a two-year extension to his four-year term. Under Hirano’s regime, Osaka plummeted in Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings, from 119 in 2011-12 to the 251-300 band in 2015-16.
In Osaka’s Institute for Academic Initiatives – Hirano’s brainchild to promote dynamic research and internationalism – there were only 10 full-time academics (including me) but 23 “support staff”. In the international department of the World Bank in Washington, where I used to work, we had 60 senior staff and only six support staff.
My modest efforts to broaden Osaka’s international horizons were savaged. I spent two years as a professor, organising HandaiGlobal, a weekly English e-newsletter and website aimed at sparking dialogue between Osaka and the world in current affairs, education and science. After 90 articles in six weeks, I wrote a 25th anniversary analysis of the Tiananmen Square massacre, reflecting on the issues raised for the current Chinese leadership.
Hirano objected and called a meeting of the university’s senior vice-presidents, who decided that we must not cover politics. When I protested and asked why I had not been allowed to argue my case and what “no politics” meant, I was told in a successive tightening of the screws that my title of “professor” meant nothing; that my contract meant nothing because “the university” could change it at will; that I was employed to do public relations; and that I could not publish anything that was not officially deemed to be in conformity with “the will/intention of Osaka University”. Finally, “they” (unidentified university bosses) decided that I was not going to obey, so I must resign or be sacked for breach of contract.
Japanese universities must stand up to the government while lessening their dependence on government funds. National universities, on average, get 55 per cent of their income from government grants, 28 per cent from hospital revenues and 16 per cent from tuition fees. The glaring gaps are alumni and corporations. Surely Japan Inc could contribute more. After all, Nissan has found it in its coffers to endow an Institute of Japanese Studies at the University of Oxford, and Toyota has put $50 million (£35 million) into Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to design smart cars.
The Ministry of Finance should be persuaded to allow tax concessions for university donations: let corporate funding bloom. With imagination, goodwill and more generous companies, both domestic and international, Japanese universities could put arts and sciences together to contribute to the world through centres such as the Honda Institute for Friendly Robots, the JP Morgan Faculty for Safe International Finance, the Mitsubishi Research Institute Centre for Globalisation or the Zuckerberg Academy for a Free Internet.
Japanese universities must not give in to political ignoramuses who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. If they do, Japan will be lost.
Kevin Rafferty is a journalist and commentator. He was a professor in the Institute for Academic Initiatives at Osaka University from April 2013 until March 2015.