Demographic shifts causing changes to Japanese universities have policy lessons for UK social science

The state of Japanese social science is relevant “to what is happening in the UK today” as “rapid demographic shifts” and funding structures are changing Japan’s university landscape, said Roger Goodman, Chair of the Academy’s Council and Nissan Professor of Modern Japanese studies and Head of the Social Science Division at Oxford University.

Professor Goodman was delivering the Academy Annual Lecture 2016 entitled The State of Japanese Social Science; Japanese Social Science and the State before the Academy’s AGM on Thursday, June 30.

In his lecture, Professor Goodman suggested a better understanding of what “really is going on in the social science community in Japan” could serve as a “way to think about some of the things that we take for granted” in the UK.

He addressed last summer’s uproar over reports of declining funding for social science as a result of reforms throughout the Japanese university system. “The main reason that pressure was applied in Japan was to deal with the rapidly changing demography”, Professor Goodman said.

Japan has historically invested more and seen a higher proportion of people going through its education system than in the UK, with nearly 80 per cent taking up some form of full time higher education provision. Of this, some 40 per cent pursue studies in social science, a greater number than any other discipline.

However, despite a 40 per cent drop in the number of 18 year olds in the Japanese population over a 12 year period from the 19900s to the early 2000s, the number of universities grew in direct proportion to the decrease in students. This includes private professional colleges which have become important parts of skills and career training.

The increase in the number of people going to university accompanied a rise in acceptance rates and a transition from two year to four year institutions. By 2008, universities had reached a state of “supply and demand equilibrium, where anyone who applied could get in.” Fears these numbers would see a major drop within ten years and lead to “the first ever major implosion of Higher Education Institutions in a large system” prompted a search for new markets for students. Reforms were, therefore, aimed at increasing university productivity in line with investment and improving the world’s second largest higher education sector’s notoriously poor global university rankings.

In June 2015, guidance had been issued to institutions on preparing for an upcoming six year evaluation, in which recommendations were made to some universities, especially national teacher training colleges, to reconsider money spent on un-accredited courses. Only two per cent of universities said they’d be making some reductions in their courses, and “this was the story that then blew up into becoming ‘this was the closing of social science and humanities departments across the sector.’”

“So why did this become such a big story for the rest of us outside of Japan?” Professor Goodman asked. Although some of the recommendations were “ideological”, he said “there is very little evidence that the government has actually been able to or actually has changed the way social science funding is allocated.” Fears that Japanese social science is “under attack” could be due to the fact that “to a certain extent we are imposing our own view of what social science is.”

Professor Goodman drew distinctions between Japanese and western models and their policy functions. Questions about whether it is “taken for granted in the west that social science is critical of a right wing government” demonstrate the extent to which “in Japan it is very clear that when we talk about social science we’re talking about two quite different things.”

Social science methods and themes construct an idea of citizenship, “which feeds into, legitimates, underlies, policies related to almost every area, from welfare to education and legal systems”, Professor Goodman said. As a result, social science in many cases is “quite supportive of a conservative view of society”, and therefore a conservative government might see it as a supporting structure.

Professor Goodman stressed that it was necessary to understand how ideologies construct ideas about identity and what it means to be Japanese. A different relationship between the person and society allows people to separate a sense of self from the role they perform in a societal context. Social science, he said, feeds into this. “An awful lot of what we do in social science we think is actually explaining things”, he said, “but it’s actually constructing the world around us.”

Social scientists understand the ways in which assumptions about what it means to be a person in different contexts impact policy work. The lesson to be learned for the UK from the relationship between social science and the Japanese state is to “look at how assumptions are constructed through our education system.”

Professor Goodman’s lecture was followed by the Academy’s AGM, and a Campaign event on the implications of the EU referendum on UK social science.

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