Mon, Jun 25, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Aging Japan struggles to fill universities

The number of 18-year-olds peaked at 2.05 million in 1992, when the baby boomers' children were entering universities, but should drop to 1.21 million in 2009


hen Yasunori Iwanaga was choosing universities three years ago, it was not the academic program, the strong team in judo, his favorite sport, or even the study abroad program in England that swayed him to choose Fukuoka University of Economics. It was the hot spring in the dormitories.

Perched immodestly on the edge of a steaming bath, a dozen judo teammates soaking happily near him, the junior in economics said he picked this university when he saw the spa pictured in a brochure. The university's resortlike new dormitories also boast private karaoke rooms, an English garden with pink roses and a swimming pool.

"This was the only university to recruit us by offering a hot spring," Iwanaga, 21, said. "They really wanted us to come here."

Japan has one of the oldest and most established systems of higher education in Asia, but today its universities are scrambling to find new ways to attract students.

Years of falling birthrates have rapidly shrunk the population of young Japanese, leaving more universities unable to find enough students to fill their classrooms and campuses.

The rapid graying of Japan's population has already been felt in other parts of society, including the lower rungs of the nation's education system where hundreds of half-empty elementary and high schools have closed or been merged over the last two decades. But it has only recently begun to affect higher education.

Japan's postwar baby boom started earlier than in the US. As a result, according to census statistics, the number of 18-year-olds in Japan peaked in 1992 at 2.05 million, when the baby boomers' children were entering universities, and has fallen steadily to 1.3 million this year. Estimates show it dropping to 1.21 million in two years.

This year, as a result, nearly one-third of the nation's 707 public and private four-year universities cannot fill their openings, the Education Ministry and university groups have said.

Roughly half of college-age Japanese attend universities. Only three universities have gone bankrupt for lack of students. Three years ago, Hiroshima's Risshikan University became the first Japanese university to fail since World War II. But the Education Ministry and university groups are busily writing guidelines to help them deal with a retrenchment that few developed nations have had to face.

"We are entering an era of survival of the fittest," said Yasuhiko Nishii, an official at the Promotion and Mutual Aid Corporation for Private Schools of Japan, the national association of private schools, including universities. "We need to find ways to let weaker universities close without disrupting the education of their students."

Many universities have responded by hunting for new pools of prospective students, such as foreigners and "silver students," retirees who study for fun. In March, Osaka University gave a doctorate in mathematics to a 71-year-old former engineer who entered graduate school after retiring.

At Fukuoka University of Economics, in this city on Kyushu, a southern island, administrators responded to the plunge in applications with a US$50 million project in 1999 to build lavish dormitories, in which all 700 rooms are singles -- a luxury on Japan's traditionally Spartan campuses -- and are wired for the Internet.

The university has also halved tuition to ¥590,000 (US$5,000). The school has also created a "celebrity business" major to train professional entertainers after administrators saw a survey showing many young Japanese now aspiring to creative pursuits like music, rather than the "salary-man" positions sought by their parents' generation.

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