Japan to Tighten Screening for New Private Universities

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry

The government intends to tighten the screening process for the establishment of new private universities, to curb the overall number of universities, The Yomiuri Shimbun has learned.

The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry will require universities to present objective data and analysis on their prospects for securing students, as an increasing number of universities are seeing below-capacity enrollment due to the declining birthrate.

Universities scheduled to open from the 2025 school year onward will be subject to the new policy.

The Council for University Chartering and School Juridical Person, an advisory organization to the education minister, has so far approved the establishment of new universities as long as there are no legal problems with such factors as their faculty structure, facilities and curriculum.

As a result, the number of universities has continued to increase. According to the ministry and the Promotion and Mutual Aid Corporation for Private Schools of Japan (PMAC), the number of private universities grew from 384 in 1992 to 620 in 2022.

In contrast, the population of 18-year-olds decreased by 40% during that period, and nearly half of private universities were short of full enrollment as of May 2022.

In response, the ministry in March revised some of the criteria for opening private universities. One of the changes was requiring an analysis of the number of prospective students based on the regional need for a new university and the estimated population of 18-year-olds after its establishment.

New schools must also consider student enrollment based on how full nearby universities with similar departments are, and present the ministry with plans to recruit students and the expected effects of such activities, including explanatory meetings for high school students who want to study at the university, visits to high schools and disseminating information through social media.

Without such objective data, the establishment of a university will not be approved.

The business environment for university operators is increasingly severe in recent years. According to a survey conducted by PMAC in fiscal 2020, 78 out of 564 educational corporations were in financial difficulty.

“In many cases, new four-year universities were established even though junior colleges and high schools could not attract students, leading to an oversupply of private universities,” said Motohisa Kaneko, a professor at the University of Tsukuba who specializes in higher education issues.

“Given the social situation, tightening the screening standards is inevitable. Universities should change their mindset, too,” Kaneko said.

Protecting students

The ministry is believed to have tightened the screening process for the establishment of private universities because the rapid decline in the birthrate may cause many more such institutions to fall into financial difficulties, leading to a string of bankruptcies.

“It will not be rare to see universities close down in the future,” a senior ministry official said.

The number of universities continued to increase due to the government’s easing of regulations in fiscal 2004, which allowed universities to be established as long as there were no legal problems. Since 2013, when the worsening business environment for private universities became apparent, the ministry has called for explanations about their prospects for securing students.

However, half of the universities that opened in the three years through fiscal 2022 were unable to secure more than 80% of their capacity. The ministry cannot be said to have taken appropriate measures.

Since private universities’ income mostly comes from tuition and other fees paid by students, securing students is directly related to their financial condition.

With the latest decision, the ministry will require university operators to submit objective data from multiple perspectives. If a university goes bankrupt and suddenly closes down, it is the students who will suffer a great loss. More rigorous screening is needed to guarantee a learning environment for students.