Culture, No.10  Feb. 4, 2012


Photo : Takeda Toru

Takeda Toru

“Let me say a few words about what I want for universities. – To start with, I hope that universities will be places where both instructors and students are as free as possible to research, educate, and learn. Secondly, it is my earnest hope that we will become decent human beings through research and education at universities. We need to scrutinize what it means to be a “decent human being,” but here, in any case, I would like to emphasize that human beings must not be an instrument, or a means for something else. Thirdly, universities are not only for the people at the universities, but they also want to serve society outside universities, to enrich the lives of people, and to contribute to decent lives for all human beings.”

Nagai Michio wrote these words in his book Daigaku no kanousei (The Potential of Universities, Chuo Koronsha), published forty-three years ago, in 1969. Described as a “crab moving sideways,” Nagai moved freely between universities, journalism and the world of politics. Retracing Nagai’s work, it strikes me that it is precisely because he reflected on universities from a point distant in time that he is able to perceive the social mission that universities by rights should fulfill, but which is difficult to see when you are inside the world of education and research.

I hardly dare to compare myself to Nagai, who even served as Minister of Education, Science and Culture, but I have also worked as a journalist while teaching at universities. Therefore, as a journalist writing this article, I would like to go beyond the perspectives of the individual universities where I have actually been involved, to reflect on the broader context where universities and university students find themselves, and to express my personal opinion of several matters that have come to my notice.

There are more universities than there are express train stops or stations selling ekiben boxed meals

After the war, the new university system was rolled out under the guidance of GHQ. At a time when many new universities were being set up, including a national university for each prefecture, Oya Soichi ridiculed the deluge, referring to them as “ekiben universities.” However, you can’t help but be surprised to learn that universities at that time numbered at the most about two hundred. After all, by 2010, the number of universities had increased to 778. What should we call universities when they number more than the stations where express trains stop and ekiben boxed meals are sold?

The number of university students has also increased to 2,887,000 (including postgraduates). It is frequently pointed out that this increase is out of proportion to trends in the population of 18-year-olds. When the last of the second generation of baby boomers turned eighteen, the population was 2,050,000. That year, the number of students entering university stood at 550,000. Since then the population of 18-year-olds has continued to decrease, but the number of university students has been rising. By 2010, the population of 18-year-olds had dropped to 1,220,000, but the number of students enrolling in university reached 620,000. Why are universities growing fat at a time of fears about declining birthrates?

Behind it lies the overconcentration on career paths. In 1992, employed high school graduates numbered 660,000, but by 2010, that number had dropped to 160,000. In 1992, 250,000 students entered junior college, but by 2010 only 70,000 did. The number of students going to technical school also dropped from 360,000 to 270,000. With the overall ratio of people entering higher education on the rise, we also have a situation where “universities reign supreme,” which supports increasing enrolment at universities.

More than one factor has led to this outcome. For example, according to the 2009 Basic Survey on Wage Structure conducted by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, the wage gap between university graduates (postgraduate degree) and high school graduates widens as they get older, and when males reach the 45 to 49 age bracket, or just the age when they are parents of high school students, there is a difference of two million yen when converted to annual income. When you consider that annual tuition at a private arts university is about one million yen, the difference in the income of a university graduate and a high school graduate in this age bracket is the fork in the road that determines whether or not to send two children to university. To avoid getting caught up in a cycle where the children of high school graduates themselves become high school graduates, parents want to send their children to university by hook or by crook. It is only natural that this should be the wish of a generation of parents who are familiar with the wage gap. Incidentally, this wage gap has widened when compared to 2004.

On the other hand, there is also pressure from the universities. Despite the decreasing population of young people, new universities are still opening, and seeking to fill their quotas, they are actively expanding their marketing campaigns. In Daigaku to wa nani ka (What is a university, Iwanami Shoten, 2011), Yoshimi Shunya writes that this is “a flip-flop from a structure where universities cater to the demands of a massive number of young people who want to go to university, to a structure where universities by their own effort create students who, whatever their academic skills and future ambitions, want to get university out of the way,” and that “it means that the same logic that applies to product marketing has been extended to stimulate the market for students going to university.”

Nonetheless, it is no easy market to stimulate. Nowadays, with 40% of all private universities suffering under-enrolment, the effort may be to no avail and universities may be trapped in open admission status. Universities are being divided into two camps depending on whether they can fill their quotas or not.

So, there it is, the result of increasing universities that are not needed. The fastest-acting prescription for this critical situation is to weed out universities. Quite a lot of people are thinking along these lines. It is the same reasoning as reducing the number of taxis if there are too many of them and the taxi industry is unable to maintain itself. However, I believe there are still many things to consider and many measures to take before we get to this point.

From the education divide and the incentive divide to the divide in satisfying the need for approval

Kariya Takehiko was among the first to point out the divisions in education in his book Kaisoka Nihon to kyoiku kiki: fubyodo saiseisan kara insentibu dibaido e (Stratified Japan and the Education Crisis: From Reproduction of Inequality to the Incentive Divide, Yushindo, 2001). Kariya used the SSM survey (National Survey of Social Stratification and Social Mobility) carried out in 1995, which focused on the inequality situation in the mature “affluent society,” and, based on the father’s profession, he identified the circumstances that cause differences in the types of high schools students enter.

Sons of households employed in the farming or fishing industry, or manual labor, often choose vocational courses if they go to high school. Even if we look at entries to general education courses, compared to students whose fathers are employed in professional or management jobs, or the office, sales or service professions, it cannot be said that there are wide open opportunities for admission to a school with a high success ratio for getting students to university. Throughout the 60s and 70s, the ratio of students going to high school increased dramatically from 57.7% to 94%, but in terms of substance, opportunities for higher studies expanded while continuing to reflect the gaps in the social hierarchy. Gaps in the passion to learn are also emerging. In situations where children lose out from the start on opportunities to take courses preparing for entry to high-level studies, there is no incentive to study. Kariya’s research recognizes correlation between the mother’s educational background and the children’s schooling: the children of a mother with little educational status have little incentive to learn.

This is where Kariya sees a paradox. Amid educational policies to avoid a disproportionate emphasis on deviation scores and excessive competition in entrance exams, the education divide and incentive divide have grown in their stead. For example, Kariya emphasizes that in Kochi Prefecture, the Mecca of the movement for open high school admission where the system of small school districts was adopted to eliminate competition, the gaps in academic skills are widening, and, in addition, there is a “bright flight” phenomenon whereby “good students” are escaping to private high schools. When the external force of competition in entrance exams is relaxed across the board, gaps develop spontaneously as if to compensate, and the result is that the gaps become even more entrenched.

Like the seismic waves that travel far from the epicenter of an earthquake, there is a time lag, but the situation in high school education depicted in Kariya’s analysis extends to universities. As birthrates decline, the pie for university enrolment is supposed to grow, but here as well, competition is easing across the board. The use of AO (admissions office) entrance exams is growing in order to nurture the individual without getting caught up in studying for entrance exams. However, this has actually emphasized the gaps. The famous universities still maintain a high competition ratio, but in the case of private universities, the twenty universities with the most applicants enjoy an oligopoly by capturing half of all applicants. Universities are making the same mistakes that have in effect polarized high schools.

Why does competition hang on so stubbornly? I believe the reason is that many students are motivated to study hard for exams by the very idea that a high ratio equals a school that it is difficult to enter. For example, short of selecting AO entrance exams as the means for getting into schools that are difficult to enter through regular entrance exams, the exams function as a proxy for winning by excelling at competition, and even if it is possible to get away from cramming for entrance exams, it does not follow that competition is eliminated.

A university where it is difficult to gain admission is chosen because it is difficult, becoming a reach school. Such tautology arises because winning out in entrance exams is not only a matter of gaining something from the result (the right to study at the university), it is also a recognition of your own ability, and I believe it also ties in with a sense of self-esteem that makes you feel at ease and happy about your own life.

The desire for competition is caused by the search for approval. There is no need to trot out Maslow’s theory on the hierarchy of needs to understand that the need for approval is a sophisticated need that follows after the fulfillment of the physical needs, and the need for safety and security. The entrance exam is a proven objective criterion for being a person with the ability to come out on top in competition, and I wonder if it is not easy to choose to take the entrance exam for a reach school because they are places where the need for approval is met.

I remonstrate with myself as I write because if I look back at the time when I was studying for university entrance exams, I doubt that I had much incentive other than winning out in competition. Of course, I chose the department and the courses because I had aspirations for the world that lay beyond those studies. However, at the stage of choosing where to apply among universities with the same departments and courses, I thought that universities that required beating out a tougher competition were worth more. My generation came before the time of declining birthrates, and I could even argue that we were thoroughly brainwashed by the rigors of the entrance examination race, but I believe that these values still continue today when the population of 18-year-olds has shrunk. For a long time now, our society has not given the young generation any other incentive for approval than competition. This is what I see as the problem area for society and for universities.

On the other hand, there is a segment of society where the children are not on the academic track to fulfill this need for approval. Using 70% of students progressing to university as the cutoff point, the Shingaku Census 2011Research on High School Students’ Career Decision-Making Process ― carried out by Research Institute of Educational Institution of Recruit Co., Ltd. divides schools into those that focus on getting students to university, and schools with a divergent curriculum, thus supporting the theory of an incentive divide that Kariya identified.

According to the survey published in 2011, students at schools with a university focus have already decided where they will apply after graduation by the time they get into the school. They are already on the competition track and as a result, they have incentive to make progress. In contrast, at schools with a divergent curriculum, the decision on higher academic studies is postponed until April-June in the second year of high school. In response to “When did you first decide which school you ultimately want to enter,” students in schools with a university focus know the name of the school by October-December of the first year, while students in divergent schools make their university decisions in July-September of the second year. Students going to vocational schools or junior colleges delay even longer before they focus on where to apply with any specificity.

Schools with a divergent curriculum earned their name because they have many students who choose routes that diverge from entering university, but the decision whether to go to university or elsewhere is delayed, and, of course, they do not have the tenacious ambition that believes without a doubt in the progression to higher studies. I already wrote about students who have this faltering ambition for academic study, but the marketing efforts of the universities stimulate their ambitions to go to university. However, since there is no competition ratio when sitting an exam for a university where the expectation is for open admission, there is also no incentive to plug away at studies, neither is it possible to feel that you have gained the approval of society when you pass. This is probably the pattern for how the incentive divide becomes linked with the approval divide even at university.

Mutual approval and the disproportionate emphasis on “bonds”

Reducing total enrolment would elicit approval in the sense that it forcibly generates a ratio. However, this would only narrow the opportunities to study at university, and would lead to the other problem of overheating competition to get into university. Above all, in a social context where there is no other motivation to study than competition, I worry that it would end up making a mess of the problems.

A joint survey by The Asahi Shimbun and Kawaijuku Educational Institution, Hiraku Nihon no daigaku (The Opening of Japanese Universities, published in July 2011), reports that the total dropout rate for national, public and private universities is as high as 7%. Of course, there are cases where students are forced to drop out for economic reasons, but the issue of a lack of incentive is also casting its shadow here. People who are excited by competition lose the incentive at the point where the competition ends, but there are also people who enter university without any incentive from the start.

To think that entering university is a good idea even so is a mistake. These days, universities are no longer places where it is possible to get “seeded” simply by getting in. Earlier, I tried to explain the context for why parents have a tendency to hope for a university degree for their children by referring to the results of the Basic Survey on Wage Structure, but from the viewpoint of the university students themselves, it is also possible to read the data differently. For young people, the wage gap between university graduates and others is not that big. Economically at least, graduating from university is not a passport to starting an affluent life these days.

This situation makes for fragile incentive to continue studying at university. As a result of feeling that “life will not change much in the future even if I slave away at my studies and get into a good company,” students change direction, give up on academic success, and try to enjoy their present lives. “Why do they want to enjoy their lives now rather than thinking about the future?” Kariya explains that such choices are actually brought on by a sense of their own capabilities. In this regard, I would like to investigate the issue with a view to the problem of esteem.

In Zetsubo no kuni no kofuku na wakamonotachi (Happy Young People in a Country of Despair, Kodansha, 2011), Furuichi Noritoshi draws attention to the “I have concerns, but I am not dissatisfied” attitude among the young generation. According to the Public Opinion Survey on National Life conducted by the Cabinet Office, as of 2010, 65.9% of young men in their 20s and 75.2% of young women of the same age responded that they were satisfied with their present lives. However, when asked in the same survey if they have any problems or concerns in their lives, 63.1% responded that they have concerns.

How is this mentality of “having concerns, but also being happy” formed? Furuichi focuses on the need for mutual approval among the young generation. Viewed over the long term, the widening disparities are certainly serious and concerns for the future remain strong. However, for young people, who are still at an age when they can somehow support themselves with part-time jobs, not being recognized by others is more serious. So, if they are able to obtain mutual approval, they feel modestly happy despite their concerns. “I want to enjoy my present life,” is recognized by others, and serves to build mutual ties of approval with other people. For example, for young people gathering together at street television monitors to support the Japanese team in the World Cup, the important thing is to connect as Japanese to savor an illusory sense of solidarity, to encourage each other, and to immerse themselves in a sense of comforting happiness.

By holding onto this solid sense of mutual approval, you learn that feeling good in yourself equals the sense of your own capability that Kariya mentions. In Furuichi’s analysis, both the orientation toward “kizuna” (bonds) after the Great East Japan Earthquake, and the gathering demonstrations against nuclear power generation are part of this context.

These days, mutual approval is also possible on networks using connecting media like Twitter. “Kizuna” was even selected as “kanji of the year” to best represent the year 2011. However, Saito Tamaki cautions us against attaching too much importance to these “bonds.” Saito believes that the bonds bring “people” into view, but make it more difficult to see “society,” causing a perception bias, which he refers to as the “bond bias.” (Mainichi Shimbun, Jidai no kaze: “Kizuna” renko ni iwakan (The Trend of the Times: Bothered by the Repeated Use of Kizuna), December 11).

Certainly, the other side of the repeated calls for “bonds” is that Japanese society has started to creak since March 11. We have even had situations where the disaster-afflicted areas and other areas came to blows over the acceptance of agricultural produce from Fukushima, or rubble exposed to radiation. “Bonds” do not only function as a way to dig in your heels among your own “people,” in actual fact, they lead to division rather than solidarity. Is it the “bond bias” that makes it difficult to spot these distortions? Saito writes, “Voices that attempt to express objections to society and the system are repressed among the bonds. The solidarity for a countermovement will not come from there.”

Reassessing liberal arts education

I wonder if the fears that Saito expresses do not most of all apply to young people who enter university without the experience of approval in the first place, and as a consequence of the depth of this absence, the aspirations for shallow mutual approval are strengthened. In this regard, I believe universities need to come to terms with a situation where pre-admission incentive equals gap in approval, and to turn it into opportunities for providing approval.

For example, on the topic of presenting a new university image, Yoshimi uses the concept of a “post-medieval university.” In the Middle Ages before modern universities were built, students and teachers were constantly on the move between several cities, and universities grew by making connections that cut across regions. These were precisely the types of universities that became the source of free cities and free scholarship.

In this time of globalization and networking, we again have movement of people, goods and information beyond the nation state. If so, Yoshimi believes that taking the medieval university, which was founded on mobility, as a model may provide value when resurrected in a modern form.

For example, the University Subcommittee of the Central Council for Education has presented guidelines on building relationships of organizational and continuous educational cooperation, including double degrees between Japanese and foreign universities. Such attempts to go beyond national and cultural domains to free up knowledge should, however, not be limited to reach schools, but should be widely used in the academic world. These days, globalization and networking is moving ahead in many areas of life, from production to consumption, and all universities are required to turn out an adaptable workforce.

Nonetheless, being able to turn out a workforce is by no means enough. In the past, universities changed to train experts when they received requests from the corporate world. However, universities that improvise responses according to the odd demand from society have become degraded to no more than a service industry, providing society with an “instrumental” workforce with a short sell-by date.

In order to avoid this, should we not reassess the liberal arts education? For example, in July 1949, Nambara Shigeru took to the podium at the entrance ceremony for the new-system University of Tokyo, and in the ceremonial address he cited the introduction of liberal arts as “the essence that the fate of the new-system universities rides on.”

“What must be done to rescue modern science and human nature from the schism, and to restore the original spirit to the university? To begin with, before individual sciences and technologies are applied to human society, we must engineer correlation, and understand their significance from a more comprehensive viewpoint.

This is education for the times, and in our day to day lives, our thoughts and actions should be guided by such general education rather than the results of individual scientific knowledge and research.” (Daigaku no saiken (Rebuilding the Universities), Bunka to kokka (Culture and the Nation), Tokyo Daigaku Shuppankai, 1957)

This emphasis on a liberal arts education advocated at the eve of the development of the “ekiben universities” fell on deaf ears, and in the period from the postwar reconstruction to the era of rapid economic growth, universities became even more strongly tinged with specialist training. It was at a time like this that Nagai wrote Daigaku no kanousei, which I quoted at the outset.

In the book, Nagai brings forward an argument that strongly resembles the theory of a liberal arts education that Nambara described about twenty years earlier.

“The most difficult part of education is to design it. These days, liberal arts courses in Japan are remarkably formalized because of the repetition of high school courses and the prevalence of introductory courses. Rather, education is a place where human beings come into contact with each other, a place for free thinking and learning how to live, and from this viewpoint, there is a need to undertake a fundamental restructuring.”

The points that Nagai made as he reflected on universities founded on societal attitudes of the time still apply today, and I believe that they should be taken seriously.

The impression of liberal arts is that it flaunts erudition and indulges in abstract thinking, but here, the term liberal arts education is not an introductory course to putting on airs and becoming a member of the elite. Through a liberal arts education that touches broadly on the wonders of the origin of the world and nature, and the intelligence of human beings born out of struggle, we give students the confidence to live as human beings. For universities to function as sources of approval by fostering confidence, we must once again redefine the orientation of liberal arts education in a modern society where approval is absent.

According to Maslow, once the need for approval has been met, the need for self-actualization arises. Using the social approval that universities provide as a foothold, university students seek to create bonds linked to social solidarity in the real sense, and not the phony bonds that only cover their nearest neighbors or Twitter followers, turning to a new society of globalization and networking, where they can exert a critical and constructive influence. Through such work, universities will change into places that put out independent-minded individuals who will achieve self-actualization. There is a tendency to discuss university reform as if it were a technical discussion about compatibility with social conditions, but it is obvious that any understanding of what constitutes education capable of building an affluent future should be based on compelling arguments.

Translated from “Jitsuyo kyoiku no ba kara wakamono no shouninyokkyu wo miyasu ba e (From a Place for Practical Schooling to a Place that Fulfills Young People’s Need for Approval),” Chuokoron, February 2012, pp. 34-41. (Courtesy of Chuo Koron Shinsha) [February 2012]