INSIGHTS into the WORLD / Low marks for free higher education policy

By Masakazu Yamazaki / Special to The Yomiuri ShimbunOne of The Yomiuri Shimbun’s editorials on Oct. 15 began: “The number of young people who have the desire and ability to advance to higher education but have to abandon their hopes due to their families’ financial situation should be reduced as much as possible.” Of course, it focused on the government’s possible provision of free higher education, one of the hottest topics of late. To me, its reference to “desire and ability” highlights the very essence of the issue.

The most important criteria for advancing from compulsory education to high school and university are the desire and ability on the part of each student to pursue further learning. Strangely enough, however, I have never heard these qualifications discussed in any meetings on education policy. In the recent House of Representatives election, political parties were keen to emphasize their respective voter-soothing pledges to extend public funding for higher education, although the beneficiaries will be limited mostly to less-advantaged students. However, none of the parties bothered to discuss whether young people have a burning desire or are really willing to participate in higher education.

In reality, many high school and university students are unenthusiastic about learning. Yet, they seem to opt to go on to higher education because they are passively riding the general tendency in society to do so. At high schools and universities, there is a large cohort of students who are members of this group. Students in this cohort enter high schools and/or universities because they want to commute to such institutions like their friends or at their parents’ recommendation. After passing their entrance exams, they typically spend much of their time working part-time and getting immersed in video games, and engage in job-hunting after managing to earn enough credits for graduation.

‘Inane’ policy

Obviously alarmed by the current state of higher education, a number of people have begun raising their voices against the latest campaign to make higher education free. The August issue of the monthly magazine Bungeishunju carried a well-written essay by Makiko Nakamuro titled “Free education is an inane policy to widen inequality.” An associate professor of Keio University, Nakamuro agrees with the idea of expanding overall public spending on education but advises against allocating the increased appropriations to higher education, saying such an approach would rather have the opposite effect on efforts to reduce inequality.

Nakamuro emphasizes the importance of the desire to learn, which she says is too late for young people to develop when they reach the stage of higher education. According to her, human beings’ lifelong love of learning is said to be instilled in childhood, and therefore preschool and compulsory education is decisively important to develop children’s learning habits. Nonetheless, parents in low-income households supposedly cannot afford to keep encouraging and assisting their children enough in both mental and physical terms to develop learning habits. In other words, children born to poor parents regrettably continue to be deprived of opportunities from birth to develop and improve learning modes.

If free higher education becomes available under such circumstances, young people raised by high-income parents will primarily benefit. In contrast, those born to low-income parents and unable to go on to higher education will only be left behind despite the measure being aimed at assisting them. Nakamuro said this would result in the widening of inequality, and strongly urges that fiscal spending be concentrated on compulsory and preschool education to ensure equal opportunities for children to nurture the desire to learn.

Nakamuro’s analysis and proposal in the magazine article were based on her research in the United States. From a common-sense point of view, I think her views are very relevant to the situation in Japan, too. As a person’s desire to do things can be referred to as a second instinct, it is natural for any disposition instilled in childhood to remain strong throughout one’s life. In that context, I greatly agree with her.

Not necessary for all

Nakamuro’s opinion that free higher education will contribute to widening inequality is worth listening to. That said, I would like to present a viewpoint in a completely different way from the associate professor, in terms of shedding light on social justice as related to young people’s desires.

There are young people who, reflecting their diverse ways of life and irrespective of the issue of inequality, choose to advance in ways different from higher education but true to their individual aspirations.

In Japan, many talented young people without higher education are involved in the primary industry sector comprising agriculture, fishery and forestry; traditional industries including ceramics, dyeing and woodworking arts; and the light industry segment, such as metal spinning. Japan is globally known for its excellent technologies and expertise in these industries, where newcomers start as apprentices and continue learning the necessary expertise and acquiring job-related knowledge and ethics corresponding to those of university students. Nevertheless, these young people are not entitled to receive subsidies for higher education — rather, the government obliges them to pay income tax as workers.

If the facts concerning them become widely recognized, I believe society will likely come up with various remedies to rectify the grave state of unfairness and inequality surrounding these hard-working talented young people.

Prospective remedies may include proposing that higher education institutions be expanded to let these working young people be enrolled in evening programs. This proposal will likely be based on certain people’s conviction that because liberal arts are an important discipline for society, people should learn them even if they have nothing to do with their jobs, and that, to that end, the entire population should go to and graduate from universities.

But this is an utterly absurd idea, which I fear more than anything. Such an idea is nothing but a theory based on amateur discussions without understanding the philosophy and contents of compulsory education of today.

As for culture that must be commonly learned and shared by the entire population, the state is responsible for ensuring for the sake of national unity that such culture is to be taught in compulsory education in the first place. A nation that has no culture to be commonly learned by its people can be highly vulnerable to division. To forestall such a tragedy, each nation provides education as a sovereign act, which means both the state and its people are responsible for the spread of compulsory education.

Higher education, low ability

Given that the level of Japan’s compulsory education is very high, students diligently and fully absorbing the curriculum for elementary and junior high schools can be said to have mastered culture beyond the level that an average adult is expected to have. I refer to one example below.

Mathematicians know what Euler’s formula is: an extremely complex mathematical formula that usually requires advanced mathematics for proof. Hiroshi Ooguri, a Japanese professor of theoretical physics at California Institute of Technology, proved in his 2013 book “Ooguri-sensei no Chogenriron Nyumon” (Mr. Ooguri’s introduction to superstring theory) that the mathematics taught at junior high school is good enough to accomplish the proof of the complex formula.

But it is highly regrettable to acknowledge that a high standard of compulsory education, as measured in terms of what is included in the curriculum, is not actually achieved at school in Japan. As I have mentioned in this column in the past, the country’s compulsory education system does not require graduating students to sit for exit examinations at elementary or junior high schools. Neither does it have a system forcing students to repeat a curricular year if necessary. As a result, even those students who comprehend only half or less of what is taught at school in compulsory education can advance to higher schools, where they are not reproached for failing to be literate enough. Some university students cannot add fractions, for example. Against this background, Japan has been transforming itself into a country with “higher education and low academic ability.”

This terrible state of compulsory education must be swiftly redressed. One practical solution can be to increase the number of teachers at elementary and junior high schools with a view to providing students with more fulfilling curricular hours. A nationwide exit examination system can also be implemented.

To realize such a positive learning environment, it will be imperative for society to change its stance toward and respect the renovated platform of compulsory education and for companies to hire junior high school graduates.

If there are young people who want to receive advanced education despite such changes, their desire and ability to learn at institutions of higher education should be carefully scrutinized and the successful applicants should be assisted with not only free education but also public subsidies for their living costs. Such generous treatment of students in advanced education will result in Japanese society’s acceptance of advanced education as a new form of occupation. Students benefiting from the new system will be required to perform at their schools with the same level of compliance as young artisans and craftsmen in the traditional and light industry areas. To keep them well disciplined, it may be necessary to devise a new code of conduct that will expel those who are lazy and reward with bonuses those who persevere in pursuing their goals.

I have touched on the possibility of regarding higher education as something like a workplace for students. In this connection, our society has a much more pressing issue that has to be addressed adequately and swiftly — the issue of young scholars who have already finished postgraduate courses and are involved in research activities. The problem they commonly face is their precarious job status as temporary workers with no guarantee of future employment and/or promotion. While this issue involving people whose desire and ability to learn have been clearly proven remains unresolved, it is no overstatement to say it is foolish to champion free higher education.

■ Yamazaki is a playwright and critic. Previously he was a professor at Osaka University and chaired the Central Council on Education. The government has given him the Person of Cultural Merit award.Speech

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