Japan’s universities are slowly ranking among the world’s top academic institutions, with many struggling to secure research funding. Fewer international students are choosing Japan for their education, and the number of doctoral students is also falling.
In many cases, Japanese universities have been overtaken by rivals in China, South Korea and Singapore.
There are a total of 780 universities, colleges and vocational schools in Japan, with 2.93 million students enrolled in 2022.
The total number of students has barely changed in the last decade, but is likely to start declining in the near future. There were 2.05 million 18-year-olds in Japan in 1992 – but only 1.12 million in 2022.
Just as worrisome as a shrinking pool of potential students is the reputation of Japanese universities on the world stage.
In July, Times Higher Education (THE) magazine released its 2023 ranking of the top 100 institutions with only two schools in Japan making the list.
The University of Tokyo ranked 39th on the list – down from 35th place last year – while Kyoto University fell to 68th place from 61st last year.
The rankings must be a big disappointment for the government. Ten years ago, the ministry of education set the target of having at least 10 universities in the top 100 within the next decade.
“The decline of Japanese universities in these rankings is rooted in reforms launched by the education ministry about 30 years ago and made national universities independent administrative organizations, meaning that effectively they finance themselves,” said Yakov Zinberg, a professor of international relations at Kokushikan University in Tokyo.
Financial support has decreased
“As government support dries up, both financially and in terms of resources, professors find themselves spending more time running around looking for sponsorship instead of doing research or writing papers on academic,” said Zinberg, who has taught at the tertiary level in Japan for nearly 20 years.
Many Japanese universities actively began targeting foreign students in the early years of the 21st century. And many remain solvent thanks to students from China who believe that a qualification from a Japanese school will benefit their careers, Zinberg said.
“But these rankings show that Japanese universities are falling in the world rankings while Chinese universities are rising, so those students are less likely to come here now,” he added.
“Inevitably, I saw standards falling in the areas I taught,” he added. “It’s the lack of financial support and the professors who are so busy trying to get funds that they don’t have time to conduct research and write papers.”
Yoko Tsukamoto, a professor at the Health Sciences University of Hokkaido, said she also noticed a decline in the abilities of Japanese students starting degree courses.
“There are fewer kids now so it’s less competitive to get into a college than it was a few years ago and, in my experience, there are as many professors who spend as much time chasing students as students in high school,” he told DW.
“They are often immature and the professors are tired of trying to help them as well as teach them.”
Another trend that Tsukamoto has noticed in recent years is the general lack of desire to study abroad.
“They’re not interested in expanding their horizons, in part because it’s too difficult for them,” said Tsukamoto, who completed his doctorate at Stanford University in California.
“It really surprised me that many first-year students only got out of Hokkaido once or twice, and then went on school trips to other parts of Japan. Most didn’t have a passport.”
Opportunities abroad are increasing
The lack of funding for research is also different from the financial incentives available in other countries, he added.
“If you’re a good professor and you want to do research, why stay in Japan?” he asked. “There are many opportunities for people in other parts of the world.”
The end result, says Tsukamoto, is a vicious circle in which there are fewer high-quality universities in Japan competing for a shrinking pool of students who don’t need to worry so much about their degree because Japan has a worsening job shortage and they are effectively guaranteed a job as soon as they graduate.
At the same time, academics have less time and less resources to continue their studies and are looking for better opportunities elsewhere.
“This is very worrying because the decline in academic standards will soon be reflected in a less capable workforce for the country,” he added.
Edited by: Keith Walker