Japan Scaling Back Liberal Arts for Vocational Focus


Japan is rethinking its approach to higher education and is looking to cut back on the liberal arts and introduce more business-oriented programs that will focus on vocational training and R&D.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has asked the country’s 86 academic institutions to redefine their focus and restructure their curricula.

“The drive is part of Mr. Abe’s efforts to revitalize Japan, injecting more dynamism and innovation into the economy through a greater focus on research, and improving the competitiveness of its graduates with precisely tailored course work,” Mitsuru Obe writes for the Wall Street Journal.

One of Japan’s problems is that traditional academic disciplines do not match student expectations with those of their employers. Japan is among the world’s advanced economies that are facing a skilled worker shortage, making it imperative to restructure university curricula to make room for more relevant vocational training.

With companies not offering training programs any longer, the country’s universities have to teach students the organizational and social skills they need to enter the modern, global marketplace. Especially in view of Japan’s attempt to re-emerge as a key player in the global economy, these organizational and social skills are important for the country’s next generation of workers.

If some universities do not redefine their missions to fit the PM’s call, one way to pressure them is through adjusting state funding, with new funding tied to relevant changes the universities will be encouraged to implement.

In an opinion article in the Guardian, Stephen Vines writes that replacing liberal arts with vocational training is dangerous:

“Of course it is desirable to employ experienced people with specific knowledge of your industry but at the entry level this experience is most unlikely to have been acquired in a classroom with a shiny, vocationally specific curriculum.”

Vines insists that the Japanese government wrongly believes that skill shortage is due to universities’ focus on liberal arts programs. Arguing in favor of keeping liberal arts in colleges, Erin Mundahl says that a humanities education teaches students how to think critically, to reason well, to think abstractly and helps them in self-exploration:

“If you can teach a student how to think well, doesn’t it stand to reason that he would be organized and articulate enough to confront the workplace as well?”

Abe’s mission is fueled by the business community, which is on the hunt for more skilled and job-ready graduates. Japan’s 86 universities had to submit their reworking ideas by the end of June to the government, otherwise they would risk losing their governmental funding amounting to about 70% of their total revenue.

Forbes’ Panos Mourdokoutas says that a closer look inside Japan’s higher education system shows no lack of research projects, but rather an “outdated academic system” that nurtures conformity and undermines innovation.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Ehime University will redefine its current course offerings by reducing its humanities programs by almost 33% and will scale back combined enrollment in its humanities and education departments. The plan is to create a regional-development program that offers local students tourism and fishery training instead.