Build it and they will stay? Japan prefecture eyes new university

Researchers sceptical about local government’s plan to open new institution as a means of stopping brain drain

September 12, 2023
Karatsu, Saga
Source: iStock

Even as falling birth rates threaten Japan’s higher education sector, policymakers in one of its most university-sparse prefectures are planning to open a new institution to prevent an exodus of talent – but academics are wary.

Saga prefecture on Kyushu, an island on Japan’s southwestern corner known for its pine forests and traditional ceramics, is an unlikely spot for a new university. But authorities there believe the move could be the solution to the region’s brain drain.

By 2028, a new university is expected to take shape in Saga, currently home to only two four-year institutions – the public Saga University and Nishikyushu University, which is private – the lowest number in the country, tied with Japan’s Shimane prefecture, according to national media.

With more than 80 per cent of the graduates of Saga’s high schools going on to four-year universities outside the prefecture, a home-grown institution is overdue, authorities say. They argue that compared with similarly sized prefectures – such as Yamanashi, with 800,000 residents and seven universities, or Fukui, with 750,000 residents and six universities – Saga lags behind.

But while local politicians believe there is a strong case to establish a local institution, academics are more sceptical that it could be a case study in bucking demographic decline.

“It is very uncertain how effective their plan could be,” said Takehiko Kariya, professor in the sociology of Japanese society at the University of Oxford.

There are a number of potential hitches, he pointed out. For one, Saga high school graduates can go to universities in Fukuoka, the neighbouring prefecture. But it’s also not clear how the new university would meet the demand for labour in the prefecture or its nearby ones after its students graduate.

Professor Kariya expressed misgivings about the prefecture-driven initiative, however well-intentioned.

“It is often the case that local governments ignore or do not have enough knowledge about labour demand or labour mobility with new graduates from the new prefectural university,” he said.

Recent statistics do not suggest that it is an ideal time to be opening a new institution in Japan, with many universities facing future shutdowns unless they can claw back student numbers being lost as populations decline.

According to a recent Nippon news report, more than half of private universities in the country are under-enrolled – something that Saga would do well to make note of, said Professor Kariya.

“The statistics are a very clear warning for the future of newly established universities if they do not gain a good reputation among employers and parents of students,” he said.

Akira Arimoto, emeritus professor of education at Hiroshima University, struck a more positive chord, lauding the effort, which he said attempts to tackle a critical need for measures against depopulation.

“Probably [the plan will be] effective to stop brain drain if they establish wonderful institutions attractive for many candidates,” he said.

But even he was sceptical about prefectural efforts. “Some years ago, Shimane prefecture established a prefectural university for stopping brain drain,” he noted, adding that the project was “in vain”.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles