Message from the Executive Director
Half way through 2015
Koin ya no gotoshi: Time flies away like an arrow. We have entered the month of August, more than half way through 2015, the year of the sheep in the traditional Chinese calendar. What does this year hold for the future of the field of the humanities? Indeed, in Japan and the UK worrying signs are on the horizon.
In May this year, the Ministry of Education and Science of Japan issued a directive raising more than just a few eyebrows. The announcement was aimed at all national universities in Japan, urging them to carry out mid-term reviews of their organizational structures and to look into abolishing faculties where disciplines related to humanities are taught and researched. Alternatively, they were pushed to integrate and convert these sections so that they would cover areas that are supposedly higher on the scale of social demand. The latter part of the directive is a couched appeal to change the subjects taught and researched at higher institutions of learning so that the focus would be more on “practical” and “useful” fields whatever that means, instead of academic ones.
To understand the impact of this quasi-command from the authorities, requires a bit more explanation about how the higher education sector is structured in Japan. There are three types of universities: national, prefectural or municipal, and private. In total, there are close to 800 universities in Japan and national universities constitute around 10 percent, while the private ones dominate the situation. One might therefore believe that there would be no harm in changing the make-up of slightly more than 10% of all universities nationwide. But, in fact, it matters greatly as quite a large number of the national universities are considered as the most prestigious in Japan. In addition, student fees are lower at these universities because they receive subsidies directly from the state and therefore offer a more economic option for potential students. However, precisely because these schools receive state funding the government is now trying to set the educational orientation – allowing the private universities to teach and research the humanities, while spending taxpayer’s money on other more “useful and practical disciplines.” In a nutshell, the Ministry for Education and Science is indicating that the humanities is far from useful, and perhaps only really a leisurely field of study.
The directive has been issued against the backdrop of the increasing depopulation of Japan, in particular amongst those under 18 years old, the age when students normally enter university in Japan. It is undeniable that there is no way that all 800 universities currently operating in Japan, can continue to survive. The natural selection process of the market will eliminate some. Having said that, it is very concerning when the government issues an almost blanket statement that is made public, strong enough to suggest that officials do not seem to approve of the significance of humanities in the world of today.
At the same time, the erosion of the foundation for operating a strong humanities’ faculty is not an issue that affects Japan alone. Here in the UK as well, funding for the humanities is becoming increasingly scarce. In addition, if the UK decides to depart from the EU as a result of the referendum to be carried out by the end of 2017, this will have a massive deleterious impact on the British universities in particular for the humanities. A large portion of all research grants received at UK universities come in some measure from the EU. Furthermore, student numbers are increasingly sustained by those arriving from the continent through various Erasmus programs. Finally, if one looks at the composition of faculties across the UK, currently there is a diversity of nationalities – British, Europeans and non-Europeans. The tight visa regime put in place for non-European students and faculty is already stifling the academic environment in the UK. It is not difficult to imagine the consequences, if and when, the British choose to leave the EU. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that the Vice-Chancellors of more than 100 UK universities got together recently to issue a strong warning to the government about the consequence a ‘Brexit’ might have on academia.
We are well aware that change is inevitable for all things and we should basically welcome such moves in many cases. However, change should always come in the form of improvement and what we are now seeing in both Japan and the UK does not seem directed towards improvement across the board. What we need is a healthy discussion about these difficult issues, which will point us towards fundamental decisions and thus securing our governments’ increased attention on potential resolutions. If we are not prudent, we might end up by treading into the dangerous territory of invading the academia freedom, a very costly result for an open democracy.