Japan downgrades its universities to quasiversities: a symptom of the Humanities and Social Sciences under neoliberal attack

The Times Higher Education reports today on a drastic directive issued by the Japanese government, which instructs the country’s eighty-six national universities to close their Humanities and Social Sciences programs or “convert them to serve areas that better meet society’s needs.” The article reports that twenty-six universities have already agreed to comply, while the Universities of Tokyo and Kyoto have refused. One university president, Takamitsu Sawa of Shiga University, has publicly denounced the government order as “anti-intellectual.”

Which is precisely what the order is. The universities that comply with the decree should also be required to re-title themselves as quasiversities. The targeted disciplines include economics and even law.

Let’s not be misled by the Times article’s vague reference to financial pressures and low enrollments as reasons for such a short-sighted and regressive government decision. And more importantly, let’s not pretend such an order couldn’t be issued anywhere else. Britain more or less cut the Humanities and Social Sciences loose in the early 2010s, when it stopped all state investment in those areas, a harsh decision that has left those programs and departments to sink or swim by corporatizing and competing in the postsecondary market while the aggressively neoliberal British government has prioritized the “profitable” STEM disciplines: science, technology, engineering, math (Preston). (Of course, the postsecondary “market” is no market at all, but that social entity we used to call “the public.”)

Closer to home in Canada, the Harper government for years has been restructuring federal research grant councils to prioritize not just the STEM disciplines but more specifically their “applied” uses for business and industry (CAUT). Same goes for the ousted PC government of Alberta, which before it got sent packing had begun to take a strong intervening role in postsecondary education, with steep funding cuts, formalized “expectations,” emphasis on business-oriented applied research, pressures on institutions to collaborate if not merge in order to find “efficiencies” (McCutcheon). In addition, the PC government imposed a narrowly neoliberal kind of budgeting: “results-based budgeting,” which by projecting desired “results” in advance – by “picking winners” as one of my colleagues put it – curtails and compromises the inherently messy and unpredictable character of university research and teaching.

Neoliberal or “market-fundamentalist” policy and financial disciplinary measures like those constantly threaten the Humanities and Social Sciences with the proverbial death by a thousand cuts. More like the direct and brutal Japanese directive, in 2007 the New Brunswick government proposed to turn the University of New Brunswick’s Saint John campus into a polytechnical training college. That move – rumoured to be a means to better provide industry-specific job training for the province’s highly concentrated and interconnected oil, forestry, and Anglophone media businesses – was thwarted by public outcry and campus mobilization, with the support of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT).

As neoliberal governments around the world show themselves increasingly to serve not the voting public or the public interest but rather the financial elites and corporations that now manage so-called democracy to advance their own profiteering interests, these governments would evidently like nothing more to suppress and shut down the Humanities and Social Sciences programs and departments that inconvenience if not threaten business elites and neoliberal politicians with policy analysis, ideology critique, public-interest advocacy, and public mobilization, among other valuable forms and practices of counter-discourse. The Humanities and Social Sciences help to advance critique as one of the university’s core social missions; as Stuart Hall famously said, “the university is a critical institution or it is nothing” (qtd. in Giroux).

Which means that, as warily as we have to watch for drastic and overt policy moves like the Japanese government order, we also have to refute and reject the perennial claims that the Humanities and Social Sciences are in some kind of financial or existential crisis. We must understand that crisis is a manufactured crisis, a crisis constructed by the powerful interests whom these disciplines and practices inconvenience, threaten, and expose. Several globally renowned scholars, among many others, have made forceful arguments not just for the continuing relevance and utility of the Humanities and Social Sciences, but for their urgent and pivotal importance to democracy, civil society, and the public interest. Martha Nussbaum argues that these disciplines vitally advance democracy and engaged citizenship. Natalia Cecire identifies these disciplines as powerful influences on our everyday life – and calls BS on pundits and policymakers who keep trying to belittle and dismiss them. And Wendy Gay Pearson points out, without exaggeration, that these disciplines can even save lives:

looking at texts for what they reveal about what it is like to live in a particular world can be exceedingly relevant, indeed even a potentially lifesaving experience. This is especially the case with queer novels and films: they teach isolated and distraught young people that they are not alone. Particularly for those in rural areas or in intensely homophobic environments, reading a novel or seeing a film that shows that another world exists can and does save lives; it is no secret that gay teenagers are at significantly greater risk of suicide when they are most isolated from contact with other gay people and especially when they genuinely believe that there is no-one else like them. (16)

Relatedly, some psychology studies of reading have drawn media attention for giving the weight of scientific evidence to conclusions that those working in the Humanities had already known all along: that reading widely, reading difficult and diverse texts, and reading outside one’s zone of comfort and personal experience all expand the reader’s capacity for empathy and understanding (Chiaet). More empathy is evidently not what serves elite interests or the class divisions they keep widening.

But, as an unfortunate torrent of events just this year has already demonstrated, the pernicious persistence of systemic racism, sexism, bigotry, misogyny, homo- and transphobia, and gendered and sexual violence in all areas of contemporary social life vividly and tragically underscores the need for more – not less – teaching and learning in the Humanities and Social Sciences, areas that are not at all peripheral but vitally central to the pursuit and production of social justice, civil society, and an engaged and informed citizenry. To marginalize or destroy them is to destroy the very idea of the university, to leave it a crippled quasiversity – it is to leave the university, and by necessary extension the public interest it is historically mandated to serve, truly in ruins.

Works Cited

Chiaet, Julianne. “Novel finding: Reading literary fiction improves empathy.” Scientific American 4 Oct. 2013.

CAUT. “Federal Budget 2015. Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT). Ottawa. 21 Apr. 2015.

Cecire, Natalia. “Humanities Scholarship is incredibly relevant, and that makes people sad. Natalia Cecire’s Blog 4 Jan. 2014.

Giroux, Henry. “Public Intellectuals Against the Neoliberal University.” TruthOut 29 Oct. 2013.

McCutcheon, Mark A. “Threats to academic freedom (and the public interest) in Alberta.” Academicalism [blog] 15 Jan. 2014.

Nussbaum, Martha. Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton UP, 2010. Excerpt rpt. at http://harvardmagazine.com/2010/07/open-book-education-for-the-soul

Pearson, Wendy Gay. “Queer Matters: A Response to Robert Fulford.: English Studies in Canada 32.4 (2006): 13-17.

Preston, Alex. “The war against Humanities at Britain’s universities.” The Guardian 29 Mar. 2015.

Sawa, Takamitsu. ”Humanities Under Attack.” Japan Times 23 Aug. 2015.

6 responses to “Japan downgrades its universities to quasiversities: a symptom of the Humanities and Social Sciences under neoliberal attack

  1. I absolutely and whole-heartedly agree with you. to abandon the Humanities is to reject the learning of ethics and thought. it’s to toss away the study of reason. some say that civilization is based on agriculture
    or commerce and is advanced by education aaand literacy. I disagree. The very foundation of human civilization and the catalyst for all human evolution is Reason. Without Reason, there is no human civilization. And there are some who would end the study of Reason?? That is madness.

  2. Virtually all the claims made in this article and the English language materials on which it is based are totally or largely bogus. I have been researching this issue in both English and Japanese and by contacting people at Japanese national universities and am in the process of writing an article about this totally hysterical and unjustified panic.

    If the author of this post or any readers of it are seriously interested in knowing what the government asked and what actually happened, I will provide details.

    • academicalism

      Thanks for your note. I’d welcome corrective information and/or countering analysis.

      • The only departments that the government asked universities to phase out were programs in “education” that did not lead to teaching credentials. These programs had originally been encouraged beginning around 2006 by regulatory officials as holding pens for surplus academics who could not be made redundant. I saw these being formed at the time. It was abundantly clear what they were.

        Telling public universities that they should have a greater regional or international emphasis to their programs is hardly reactionary. It is very much mainstream thinking. It has long been the norm in the US and the UK. I don’t know about Canada.

        Claims that the government aimed this directive at ALL national universities ignored the fact a number of Japanese national universities have no social science or humanities programs to abolish. Others have only such programs.

        Claims that the government wanted social science and humanities programs abolished ignored the fact that traditionally the elected and public sector elite comes from such programs, especially law which in Japan is not professional training that leads to qualification as a lawyer or solicitor.

        Even if the directive had been exactly as misinterpreted by virtually all foreign commentators and not a few Japanese, it would have had little impact. Depending on definition, no more that 5-10% of all undergraduates doing social science and humanities programs are in national universities. Some are in public (municipal, prefecture) universities while most are in private universities not subject to the directive.

        Japanese national universities, especially the large prestigious ones including Tokyo and Kyoto, are primarily science, engineering, and medicine. Their social science and humanities programs are quite small and with the exception of law and economics not all that noteworthy.

        A few foreign commentators issued rebuttals based on what they did not see happening at national universities but they were ignored. The Japanese who reacted were letting their anti-Abe politics color their interpretation. Foreign observers wrote from total ignorance of the Japanese system and a mindset that would lead them to believe that Japanese behave in a way that is beyond the realm of “Western” experience.

        As far as I have been able to determine, nothing much happened. Some universities are phasing out the bogus education programs as requested. Some have cut humanities and social science intakes by a small amount, a wise move even without the government directive, since applicant preferences have been shift to hard subjects. Some universities added international or regional to the names of departments.

        In short, nothing much happened nor was it ever expected that there would be a big change.

      • academicalism

        Thanks for sharing your further thoughts here. Would you be willing to share links to some of the rebuttals you mention, or to other published critiques of the Western reporting — or misreporting — of the issue?

      • The best and most detailed rebuttals are in Japanese. I found only three or four in English that were solid. I’ll try to post the links in the next few days as I sort through the items that I’ve been dumping in my archive. This book in Japanese is the best I’ve seen so far.


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