World market success is forcing a once tightly knit nation to unwind. Tony Tysome takes a look
Leaders of Japanese higher education are fighting to avert a financial and educational crisis they fear could sweep through universities and colleges next century.
Demographic change, new demands from students and employers and an information revolution are creating a highly competitive environment in which many institutions will struggle to survive.
Government officials and institutional heads talk of impending bankruptcy for some universities and colleges, despite soaring fees, a student support system funded largely by parents, and state commitment to invest trillions of yen in science and technology.
Such dark predictions might be dismissed as a paranoid tendency of the Japanese psyche, a predilection to mix tatemae and honne - reality and illusion, were it not for the fact that the Japanese are now showing signs of getting down to serious educational reform. Self-survival rather than the traditional emphasis on collaboration is the motivating force behind it.
Government figures show that the population is expected to peak at 130 million by 2011, and then decline. If the higher education participation rate of around 50 per cent of school-leavers is maintained, institutions may then face a 40 per cent drop in enrolments.
But demand for university now is growing at such a pace that by 2004 the number of applications could equal capacity. To stop the system expanding too much, the ministry of education, science, sports and culture (Monbusho), is holding numbers at the present participation rate until 2004.
Takafumi Goda, planning director for the ministry's higher education bureau, said: "We have to limit the number of students and the size of the system so that each institution can expect enough applicants. If we do not do this there is a danger some institutions could go bankrupt."
Japan has 565 universities, of which 415 are private institutions and 98 are national. The remaining 52, the local authority-funded prefectural universities, are considered to be the most vulnerable. But many private and national universities, which are seen by employers and students as occupying the lower half of an informal and unpublished league table, are also likely to suffer in the emerging battle to fill places.
The second layer of higher education institutions, the junior colleges and colleges of technology, are also worried. Their two-year courses are falling in popularity as more students aim for four-year degrees in prestigious universities.
Claudette Bernier, president of the Caritas Junior College, said: "We are facing a crisis because there is a tendency now for more girls to go on to four-year universities. A social trend like that is difficult to counter."
The absence of any real quality checks has also been an area of concern. Hidenori Fujita, professor of education at Tokyo University, said institutions are only just abandoning practices of the 1970s, when lecturers annually recycled the same teaching material.
The Monbusho has met resistance from academics to the idea of outside or peer assessment and has accepted self-assessment as a first step to the possible establishment of a national quality regime.
Ministers are planning to visit Britain in the next few weeks to see whether quality assurance systems there could be applied in Japan.
Mr Goda said: "If the universities are successful in forming common assessment criteria then we might be able to introduce a national evaluation system. But even then we doubt whether the Government could monitor quality in universities. It may be that university or professional groups will form some kind of agency."
Rapid growth in student numbers since the early 1970s has brought calls for diversity. The Monbusho wants universities to cater for a wider range of abilities, aims and expectations. But for any real change there needs to be an overhaul of the rigid university entrance examination system for which students cram to perform well in multiple-choice tests. Critics say this produces conformist, uncreative individuals.
Most university students go through the motions of completing their degree course knowing that they will land a decent job at the end. But employers and some academics say this needs to change.
Gregory Clark, president of Tokyo's Tama University, suggests: "Students should be encouraged to read more and get involved in outside volunteer activities so as to broaden their dangerously narrow outlooks. Teachers too should spend more time outside the cramped university environment."
The push for reform has extended to graduate schools, where the Monbusho is investing for rapid expansion. Here competition is pushing specialism to the extreme. But some institutions, such as the top-rated private Keio University, are introducing a cross-disciplinary approach to research in the hope it will develop more enquiring minds.
Hideo Aiso, who chairs the university's graduate school of media and governance, said: "In the past, Japanese students have simply been presented with questions which they must answer. For the future it is important they find the problems as well as the solutions."