A sharp drop in Japan's teenage population is making it easier for students to win places at the country's top universities and colleges.
With fewer students sitting the entrance exams which determine entry to higher education, the chances of winning much-coveted places at prestigious institutions are now increasing.
Population figures show that the number of 18-year-olds, the age most students begin their higher education, will fall from 1.93 million in 1992 to 1.62 million by 1998.
At the same time the effects of the recession, the worst since the war, are discouraging some students from applying to top private universities which charge the highest entrance and tuition fees.
In particular, more students in provincial towns and cities are choosing to study at local universities rather than travel to more prestigious, and considerably more expensive, institutions in large cities such as Tokyo or Kyoto.
A report from the Economic Planning Agency says the cost of sending a student to a leading private university now amounts to something like Pounds 15,000 for the first year alone.
The number of applications for places at the Tokyo-based Waseda University, one of Japan's top private universities, has fallen by around l5,000 since the last academic year. Chuo University reports a drop of 16,000 applications and Meiji University a drop of 12,000.
Even popular state-run national universities, which have lower admission and tuition costs, are reporting sharp falls in the number of applications they receive.
The economic recession is also affecting the courses students are choosing to apply for. Vocational and professional courses such as dentistry, pharmacy and medicine are becoming more popular while general education courses are receiving fewer applications.
A survey commissioned by Fukutake Shoten, a textbook publishing company, suggests that the number of students wanting to major in certain general education subjects has fallen by as much as 90 per cent in the current year. Companies struggling to cope with the effects of the recession are looking to cut their training costs by hiring more graduates with specific skills. In the past most Japanese companies preferred to provide their own professional training.
The changes now taking place in Japanese higher education have caused several academics to predict that Japanese universities will eventually fall into one of three categories: research-oriented, vocational and continuing education.
The University Council, which advises the Ministry of Education on matters relating to higher education, suggests that the opportunity provided by falling rolls should also facilitate major improvements in the quality of higher education being offered to students.
The council wants universities to think about introducing smaller classes and making more use of discussion and debate as teaching methods.
Other recommendations from the council include the acceptance of students above the normal university age, improvements in the student guidance system and recruitment of teachers from out with the education system.
With the country's birth rate at a record low level the longterm outlook for unpopular universities is gloomy. Figures from the Economic Planning Agency show that 1.22 million babies were born in Japan in 1991, 40 per cent fewer than in 1971.