Cutbacks in university arts and humanities will only harm Japan's advancement

Kevin Rafferty says Japan's push to get universities to focus on 'efficiency' shows ignorance about the vital link between science and the arts, and can only undermine education itself

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 September, 2015, 10:44am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 September, 2015, 10:44am

Japan's education minister sent a notice to the presidents of the country's 86 national universities in June, telling them to abolish their undergraduate and graduate schools devoted to the humanities and social sciences or shift their curriculums to fields with greater utilitarian value. There was a clear "or else" behind the demand - or else you won't get money.

What a crass and dangerous edict, the view of an ignoramus who does not understand science or the humanities, or the importance of education. Even for a government busy counting its yen to pay for the pensions and social security of its ageing population and to send its soldiers off to foreign fields, this was a stupid decision.

Takamitsu Sawa, president of Shiga University, damned the decision as "outrageous". Other university presidents have kept quiet, an indictment of the cosy dependence of Japan's universities on government funding.

If Japanese education is to escape the damaging consequences of the decision, it will require bravery on the part of university heads, an injection of common sense into the education ministry, and generosity and imagination on the part of Japan Inc, meaning the big corporations and finance ministry. All that is a big ask.

A senior education official said universities would be expected to choose a "mission" under three main categories: enhancing global standing, regional development and specialised studies. "Funds will be dispersed according to universities officially defining their missions and [submitting] plans to achieve their targets," the official added. The "National University Reform Plan" takes effect next year.

Behind the government wish for 'efficiency' is a belief that science education is a sausage machine into which you can put 100 yen and get out a kilo of knowledge

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is fixated on getting 10 Japanese universities into the global top 100. At the moment, only Tokyo, 20-25th according to the various tables, and Kyoto clearly qualify. One mistake is to think a government can plan the way to global university excellence, even if you believe in the value or reliability of global league tables.

Meanwhile, education suffers. At undergraduate level, the university should be educating young people for going out into the world. Given the insularity of Japan, the humanities, including a sound grounding in English and Chinese, with an understanding of the history and importance of science, are essential. Most new graduates are not going to be scientists or engineers, but potential managers, salesmen and bureaucrats.

At graduate level, and especially among potential award-winning scientists, a good dose of the humanities would help. Arts and the humanities effect a vital civilising influence over science. They interact with each other, arts to provide the inspiration for science; logic and language to communicate the importance of the scientific advance; and philosophy, politics and economics to question and keep science operating in the interests of humanity.

Behind the government wish for "efficiency" is a belief that science education is a sausage machine into which you can put 100 yen and get out a kilo of knowledge. Sadly, path-breaking scientific research cannot be ordered in response to government mantras and time scales.

Broad understanding of the humanities can lead to path-breaking scientific advances. Philosophy is the lodestone of mathematics, the queen of science. Bertrand Russell's investigations into philosophy and language led to the artificial languages of modern computer science.

Ultrafast DNA sequencing is a global effort. But how can Japanese scientists become plugged in if they do not understand the humanities, the history of civilisation and Japan's place in the world?

It is heartbreaking to see Japan's penny-pinching politicians planning to turn university humanities and social science departments into vocational training schools, as one of their "experts" suggested.

It is a classic case of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Kevin Rafferty, journalist and commentator, was a professor in the Institute for Academic Initiatives at Osaka University