In an effort to make college grads more employable, Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is requiring public universities to rework their programs. “Rework,” in this case, seems to primarily mean cutting liberal arts offerings.
All 86 of Japan’s national-level public universities were required to submit restructuring plans by the end of June if they wanted to continue receiving funding. With universities relying on the government for 70% of their revenue, it’s not surprising that they jumped to comply with the new regulations.
Obviously, some sort of change is needed. In a country where workers used to stay with one company for their entire lives, more than 30% of college graduates now quit their first job within three years. And companies are constantly searching for workers with better social and organizational skills as the economy becomes more globally oriented. It’s not surprising, then, that Abe would want universities to move toward more opportunities for innovation and research.
But is cutting liberal arts really the best way to go? “We…need to come out of the ivory tower and listen to the real world,” said Katsushi Nishimura, a law professor at Ehime University in western Japan. On the other hand, “traditional fields like arts, literature, history, and social sciences are also—and will always be—important,” said Bruce Stronach, dean of Temple University’s Tokyo campus. And of course there’s the time-honored tradition of a broad liberal arts education being the starting point for college students to assess their skills and interests in terms of future employment.
Still, the truth is, Japanese universities aren’t currently serving their students as well as they could. While middle and high schools in Japan are notoriously academically intense, a recent survey by the education company Benesse Corp. found that Japanese university students spend less than two hours each week on studying outside of the classroom. In addition, falling asleep in class in routine.
On some level, the answer could be more closely aligning Japanese business needs and university offerings. “The industries need to explain clearly what skills they are looking for in the students,” said Minoru Amoh, a former DuPont executive working on education form at the Japan Association of Corporate Executives.
But do these changes really need to come at the expense of equally important and already threatened liberal arts programming?