Tokyo axes tuition fees for large families to boost universities

Government schemes to bolster higher education come amid ongoing population decline and recent drop in doctoral students

December 12, 2023
Japanese nursery babies in an outing at Kamimeguro street, Tokyo, Japan to illustrate Tokyo axes tuition fees for large families to boost universities
Source: Alamy

Japanese students from families of three children or more may soon be attending university free of charge – in a plan reportedly meant to mitigate the effects of population decline on higher education.

Unlike previous efforts on this front, the policy, which is envisaged to take effect in fiscal 2025, would have no income limit, according to national media. It would also cover students attending junior colleges and technical colleges, the Japanese press reported.

The scheme is among the government’s recent attempts to tackle Japan’s demographic drop – which is imperilling the continued function of universities, particularly smaller institutions and those in Japan’s regions.

It would build on previous steps to lighten the load on university students and their families. Already, the administration of prime minister Fumio Kishida had expanded a programme giving tuition fee cuts or scholarships to low-income students from large families, raising the cap on qualifying households from ¥3.8 million (about £21,000) to ¥6 million for those with three children or more.

But such reprieves come amid a steady drip of worrying news for the future of the country’s youth and the institutions that serve them.

This summer, Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) forecast that the number of students entering Japanese universities by 2040 would dip by about 130,000 from 2022 levels. An additional 11,000 could be lost by 2050.

In autumn, Japan’s Education Ministry reported that the number of doctoral students in the country had dropped by a fifth in the past two decades. While academics said the change was driven largely by factors unrelated to demographic decline, an additional decrease in domestic students would further constrict the pipeline.

While Japan’s ¥10 trillion mega-fund, designed to create “international research universities of excellence” and attract top talent from around the world, could have an indirect benefit, potentially drawing in many more overseas students, it does not solve the bigger problem.

The policy for large families would take a broad approach – targeting students not necessarily bound for top institutions. But academics were sceptical that the scheme would make much of a difference if it is implemented.

Akira Mori, a scholar at the Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Tokyo, noted that families with three children or more “constitute a small fraction of the population”.

“I do not believe that the new scheme will be effective to change our demographic dynamics,” he said.

Others were wary of the scheme’s potential effects on quality.

“If this policy functions to feed students who have [reached an] insufficient academic level into universities, it will be just a life extension measure for universities with low standards,” said Takakazu Yamagishi, director of the Center for International Affairs at Nanzan University.

But a detailed discussion of the scheme may be beside the point given that Tokyo’s top policymakers face a precarious future amid a scandal over allegedly undisclosed funds, said Aki Tonami, associate professor of international relations and economics at the University of Tsukuba.

“Questions about this plan are crucial, but amidst the ongoing political chaos, it remains uncertain whether this policy will actually be put into action,” she said.

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