Japan Mulls Rules to Protect Students at Universities that Fail

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

The education ministry is undertaking the establishment of rules to ensure that students will be able to keep learning in the event of the sudden closure of their private university due to the operator’s bankruptcy.

The nation’s declining birthrate has caused a serious decline in the number of students enrolled at universities, sometimes far below their capacity. This has raised concerns that an increasing number of school corporations will not be able to continue operations in the future.

The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry is compiling relevant measures by the end of fiscal 2024.

Currently, if a university closes, other universities are expected to take in affected students. Under the current system, however, a subsidy from the nation is reduced for a university with more students enrolled than capacity. The ministry will consider creating an exception whereby the subsidy won’t be reduced even in these cases.

In addition, the ministry is looking into allowing affected students to attend lectures at distant universities online if universities nearby do not offer their same field of study.

At the same time, the ministry will consider revising laws and regulations for universities that know they will close and that stop accepting students. The current regulations set the number of faculty members required in accordance with students’ admission as a whole among other factors, but the regulations might be amended to allow for a gradual reduction in the number of faculty members in accordance with the end of enrollment.

The population of 18-year-olds in 2022 was 1.12 million, down 40% from the 2.05 million in 1992, according to the education ministry and other sources. The shortage of applicants for higher education is also significant, with 284 of the 598 private universities — or nearly half — failing to meet their capacity as of May 2022, and 13 of these universities were at less than 50% capacity.

Private universities’ revenue mainly comes from enrollment and tuition fees.

According to a 2021 survey by the Promotion and Mutual Aid Corporation for Private Schools of Japan, 74 of the 568 corporations operating private universities are in financial difficulties, with 12 possibly running out of funds within four years.

So far, the only university that was abolished while students were enrolled is the University of Creation; Art, Music & Social Work, which the ministry ordered to dissolve in 2013 for disorderly management among other reasons.

This year, however, Keisen University in Tama, Tokyo, and Kobe Kaisei College in Kobe announced that they would stop accepting students from the 2024 academic year onward.

As financial difficulties of private universities have come to the surface, a senior ministry official said: “The situation is becoming too difficult to overcome through the efforts and ingenuity of individual universities alone. The government must take action.”

Higher education specialist Prof. Akiko Morozumi of the University of Tokyo said the shortfall in university enrollment has been accelerating in the past few years.

“The fact that the government is making rules to protect students can be seen as a message to each university to have a sense of urgency,” she said. “Universities should make preparations if they fail to improve their management.”