Japanese private universities could find themselves in a difficult situation as Tokyo seeks to increase the proportion of science students in higher education by 35 to 50% over the next decade, according to academics.
Plans released this fall by Japan’s Cabinet Office called on institutions to produce more science even as the country population decline. The move aims to help Japan meet critical skills needs in industry and tackle large-scale societal issues, such as climate change.
But academics said that although well-intentioned, the plans would place a heavier financial burden on private institutions which account for 80% of the country’s higher education sector. These universities currently focus primarily on the social sciences and humanities, and it is often more expensive to teach science.
“There are growing expectations for innovations which can significantly transform society, and universities are expected to contribute to this,” said Akiko Morozumi, professor of higher education at the University of Tokyo.
Nonetheless, she said, the government’s goals would prove “extremely difficult” to achieve for cash-strapped private institutions.
Professor Morozumi noted that the government was discussing the possibility of sharing full-time professors with other universities and designing flexible educational programs between universities, increasing STEM offerings through collaboration – something private institutions have done. to meet the demand for data science graduates.
“I expect many universities to partially respond to these policies without increasing costs,” she said. Private universities receive few government grants and are unlikely to be able to raise tuition fees amid student shortages and an ongoing recession.
Akiyoshi Yonezawa, vice director of the international strategy office at Tohoku Universitywas convinced that public institutions – where graduates already major mainly in STEM courses – would be able to adapt to the government plan, as would the best private universities.
But achieving that goal was a “quite different story” for less affluent private universities under the pressure of declining populations, he said.
While teaching the humanities and social sciences does not require a lot of resources, courses in the natural sciences often require laboratory work, including materials and supervision, which makes the proposal “very expensive”.
Professor Yonezawa suggested that a “realistic option” could be for these institutions to integrate STEM offerings into their other courses, in the vein of a “more interdisciplinary type of liberal arts education”.
But not everyone is sure that such an approach would equate to a real increase in science education.
“I wonder if such a program can be called a real STEM program. Wouldn’t it be a quasi-STEM program? asked Hiroshi Ota, director of the General Education Center of Hitotsubashi University.
Other scholars were less convinced that creating more natural science majors would result in an influx of needed skills.
“Personally, increasing the proportion of STEM graduates in Japan is not that important,” said Junko Hibiya, former president of the International Christian Universitya private institution located on the outskirts of Tokyo.
Instead, she advocated for the development of critical skills across disciplines. “What we need to emphasize is that all students take STEM courses more seriously during their undergraduate years,” she said.