Japanese fret over how to fill classes

April 27, 2001

As Japan's academic year gets under way, university heads are growing worried that a greying population could eventually force universities to recruit students rather than select them.

In the past ten years, the number of 18-year-olds has fallen from more than 2 million to 1.5 million, while the number of universities has risen from 507 to 649. The ministry of education has said that the number of university places may equal the number of applicants by 2008.

Private universities are the hardest hit - revenue and government subsidies are proportional to the number of students they admit. Last year, 28 per cent of the 471 private universities under-recruited and had subsidies slashed. With the need to recruit students a matter of survival, many universities have been forced to change.

"Universities must clearly present differences and unique characters," said Takayasu Okushima, president of Waseda University.

Waseda is among a group of universities in north Tokyo that this month started a faculty and student exchange programme that allows students to study courses outside their own universities. Last year, Tokyo Metropolitan University became the first public institution to set up a student exchange scheme with a private institution, Chuo University.

The trend towards tie-ups aims to make universities more attractive by offering greater choice in study options.

The threat to student enrolment has compelled Aoyama University to move its campus. Recognising the importance of being near Tokyo, which is home to about 25 per cent of Japan's university student population, Aoyama spent more than £120 million on a campus closer to the capital.

Other universities have been looking at adult and business education as an alternative revenue stream. Tokyo-based Keio University, Japan's most prestigious private university, opened a campus this month in Marunouchi, one of the capital's most important business districts. The university will offer evening classes aimed at business people with courses including business negotiation and social networking. The trend is the same in other cities, where workers are flocking to business programmes offered by local universities. Graduate programmes are another growth area, especially MBAs and information technology courses.

In a country that prides itself on its lifetime employment system, many academics are worried about the future of their institutions and their jobs.

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