The transition of the Japanese higher education market and the role of private universities

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Japanese higher education

By Prof Hitoshi Shiozaki
Kindai University, Japan

Japanese universities are facing a crossroads. The population of 18-year-olds (i.e. the age when students finish secondary education and move on to tertiary education) has decreased from over 2 million to approximately 1.2 million over the past 20 years, and the number is expected to decrease further. It has become increasingly difficult for universities in remote areas to attract students, with over 40% of private universities unable to fill their quotas. Amid severe competition, and unable to fill their quotas with only Japanese students, many private universities are focusing on recruiting more international students. This trend is also widespread in a number of other countries with falling birth rates and aging populations, making the effective operation of the administrative offices that recruit degree-seeking international students even more crucial.

International students in Japan

In 2008, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), and other affiliated divisions of the Japanese government, announced a “300,000 Foreign Student Plan”, which calls for increasing the number of foreign students in Japan from 140,000 to 300,000 by the year 2020. The government expects this plan to make Japan more internationally inclusive and accessible, and increase the flow of people, commodities, money, and information not only in Asia, but throughout the world. As a result, by 2015, the number of foreign students in Japan had increased from 140,000 to 200,000. However, the majority of these students have come from China (45% in 2015), presenting a huge imbalance. In order to achieve true diversity, which will ultimately improve Japanese universities’ global competitive standing, it is necessary to actively pursue recruiting opportunities not only in other parts of Asia, but also worldwide. Naturally, in order to accomplish this, in addition to providing graduates of Japanese universities with quality higher education, universities must also provide graduates with the advantages gained through their university’s international prestige and ranking.

What are the main goals of international students who decide to study in Japan today? It may be that the majority choose to come to Japan in hopes of obtaining future employment connected with Japan, whose economy is perceived better than that of their own countries. Ideally, however, it would be preferable if they chose to come to Japan for the kind of advanced education that would give them an edge in finding jobs in the global market. Even universities that presently attract a large number of applicants should not settle for the current situation but rather strive to globalise their curricula in order for students to lead fulfilling college lives and move on to successful careers.

The relative decline of the reputation of Japanese universities

Since the end of WWII, Japan has achieved incredible economic success, thanks in many ways to its unique manufacturing techniques and technological developments. Today, Japan’s research is quite highly regarded, and in many areas leads the world. In addition, in recent years a number of Japanese researchers have been awarded Nobel Prizes.

In the past few years, however, many emergent nations’ universities have gained worldwide recognition, while Japanese universities’ reputation has suffered a relative decline. For the past decade, the growth rate of Japanese university publications and citations has stagnated, weakening Japan’s impact on international research, which is reflected in global university rankings. In addition, unlike many of the emerging countries, Japan seems to lag in terms of globalisation, in part, due to complacency toward foreign language learning. Without the tools of language to study abroad, conduct business or engage in collaborative research, Japanese are at a tremendous disadvantage on the global stage. This issue is intertwined with that of attracting foreign students to Japanese universities. If it is evident to foreign students that the university campuses and students in Japan are not equipped to handle global communication at a sophisticated enough level, there is less likelihood that they will consider devoting their time and resources to such an environment.

To make our university campuses more appealing to prospective foreign students, I encourage young people of Japan to gain the linguistic ability, flexibility, and creativity to first be able to communicate, and then later to compete on an equal footing with other young people in the world. Such an environment would go a long way in attracting foreign students and researchers, as well as preparing our own students for meaningful and fulfilling study abroad.

To exemplify how the above phenomenon affects business and international relations, recently the acquisition of a prominent Japanese electronics company by a Taiwanese firm made headlines, reaffirming what has become more common; being hired by a top Japanese corporation may no longer guarantee lifetime employment. This state of affairs makes it more necessary than ever to increase the awareness and sense of urgency among young people in Japan regarding Japan’s shortcomings in global competitiveness, and the inevitable need to focus more on international markets as well as the domestic market.

Ironically, there are now more Japanese high school graduates considering prestigious universities such as Harvard or Cambridge over Tokyo University, Japan’s highest ranked university. However, it seems likely that if Japanese universities were able to compare more favourably with foreign universities, then high school graduates would base their choices not just on the reputation of the university, but rather on their individual educational goals. In other words, if Japanese universities were regarded to be at the same level as foreign universities, the possibility of a so-called “brain-drain” would diminish.

However, unless Japanese society can actually offer more attractive career opportunities for university graduates, and better working conditions for researchers, this situation may not improve. To illustrate, whereas many American Ivy League universities offer sabbaticals once every five years, most Japanese universities, including Kindai University, only offer one sabbatical during the entire tenure of a full-time faculty member. Universities offering the highest quality of education are generally headed by faculty with superior research accomplishments, thus it is vital for universities to create a more conducive environment for faculty members to engage in research and develop innovative and up-to-date curricula.

The role of private universities

In 2015, out of the 779 four-year universities in Japan, 604 were private, which demonstrates how pivotal the role of private universities in Japan is. What is more, three quarters of Japanese university students (about 2.1 million) attend these private universities.

More so than with public universities, it can be argued that private universities, which attract both the vast majority and a wider variety of students, have a greater responsibility to provide the education and the social skills that graduates will need to succeed and function effectively and responsibly in society. The success of a university in providing these attributes and developing such graduates defines its character and demonstrates its contributions to society.

Regrettably, the student-to-faculty ratios at private universities in Japan are generally larger than those at public universities, but for the most part, the faculty are held to the same research standards, and expected to conduct noteworthy research despite such restrictions. In addition, expenditures per GDP on education by the Japanese government, including funding for research, are considered the lowest among OECD member nations. This predicament means that it is essential for Japanese universities, particularly private universities, to take further steps in strengthening ties with private companies and engage in joint research projects, especially in areas of technology. Kindai University is now conducting the largest number of privately funded research projects in Japan. Obtaining donations from alumni or corporations has typically not been widespread in Japan, so mutual cooperation with private companies, and increasing the number of cooperatively funded research and venture enterprises administered by the university has become a pragmatic and viable approach for obtaining research funding.

One advantage that private universities have is their relative flexibility in choosing research projects. It is, therefore, possible to continue working on a single project for an extended period of time if it is deemed particularly worthwhile. As one significant example, while a number of other universities halted research on the full-cycle cultivation of Bluefin tuna along the way, Kindai University continued its research for over 32 years until finally achieving full-cycle cultivation in 2002. As a result, today customers can enjoy fresh seafood farmed at Kindai’s fishery laboratories, and served at its restaurants in Tokyo and Osaka. This is both a valuable link between the university and the society, and at the same time familiarises the public with our research accomplishments. Hopefully, projects such as our Bluefin tuna research will attract more attention in Japan and abroad, and lead to other such environmentally friendly projects.

Long queue at Kindai restaurant

Interest in world university rankings

As a result of the increased clamour for globalisation in higher education, educators and the media have taken greater interest in world university rankings. Kindai University is listed in major university rankings such as QS, THE, and URAP, and with an understanding of the distinctive characteristics of each ranking system, we can determine where our university stands on the global stage. Kindai University has achieved a number of noteworthy research accomplishments, among which are the above-mentioned farming of Bluefin tuna, and valuable findings in medicine, particularly in cancer treatment. These achievements are reflected in the rankings. In order to further improve our position in these rankings, among other issues, we must specifically tackle the slow pace of globalisation by addressing our foreign language learning programmes, international student admissions, and student-faculty ratios; problems which are common to many Japanese universities.

University ranking organisations vary in the evaluation methods they employ, so it is necessary for us to objectively consider their evaluations, while verifying from our own perspective the relative strengths and weaknesses of our university. With a clearly defined mission, and by conducting more and better research that leads to greater achievements, our academic ranking and reputation will climb accordingly, thereby attracting more quality students.


Because of the sheer numbers and diversity of students at Japanese private universities, the role of these universities is enormous, and thus differs from that of public universities in many respects. Rather than offering fields of study and curricula that might overlap or duplicate those of public universities, most private universities such as ours, have the administrative flexibility to put ideas into action quickly, and focus more, when feasible, on diversified and cutting-edge research. In addition, implementing educational policies and pedagogical methodologies that inspire and motivate students will lead them to find ways to contribute to, and repay, society. This is summed up in our major founding principle “Learning for the real world”. Rather than providing mere “armchair theories”, or knowledge in a type of “conveyor belt” system, we feel it our mission to provide students with pragmatic concepts, insights and technological skills that will be applicable in the real world and vital to their own success.

Since achieving high economic growth in the latter half of the 20th century, along with the gradual yet steady maturing of society and the lowering birth rate, the needs of higher education have constantly changed. With the decreasing population, a dwindling working force, and shrinking consumer markets, universities are needed that foster students who can strengthen social values and promote innovative ideas; this in turn will lead to revitalising Japan’s economy and welfare. Amid these circumstances, all Japanese universities, but especially private universities, are striving to survive in their own way. However, the only realistic way they can survive is by evolving and delivering a more inspiring and convincing narrative.

Along with other private universities, Kindai University is evolving, and has recently created a new and significant chapter in its narrative. In April of 2016, the Faculty of International Studies was established, demonstrating the university’s resolve toward globalisation. In this regard, Kindai University is determined not only to provide its students with opportunities to engage in quality research, education, and social contribution, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to provide them with skilled and pragmatic guidance they can use in pursuing unique and innovative solutions for success in today’s global society.

After obtaining his doctorate in medicine from Osaka University, Professor Shiozaki pursued research in pathology at Heidelberg University in Berlin. Upon returning to Japan, he served at Osaka University for 20 years as an instructor and assistant professor. In 2001 Professor Shiozaki accepted a position as professor and later director of surgery at Kindai University Hospital, Faculty of Medicine, specialising in upper gastrointestinal tract surgery. He has received worldwide recognition for developing new surgical methods that do not damage the vocal cords of esophageal cancer patients. With his research in pathology in Berlin, he made further research findings in the mechanisms of cancer metastasis, earning the The Japan Medical Association’s Medical Research Encouragement Prize. As director of Kindai University Hospital, he has improved the working conditions of female staff by, among other things, creating a nursery in the hospital. Since 2012 he has served as president of Kindai University.