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.
The prospect of universities fighting to win students has prompted national hand-wringing about the future of Japanese higher education. Since the founding in 1877 of the nation's first modern university, the Uni-versity of Tokyo, Japanese universities and their grueling entrance exams have been the society's main mechanism for sorting its youth, tracking the brightest into top business and government jobs.
Many fear that this mechanism could be impaired if universities lower standards to attract more students.
But in a country where higher education has long been viewed as a four-year break before entering the work force, some administrators welcome the competition, saying it will force schools to improve the quality of instruction or perish.
Atsushi Hamana, president of Kansai University of International Studies in Miki, Japan, says that schools are realizing that young people actually want to study to get the skills to compete in a globalizing economy.
"It's ironic, but it took this crisis to make universities realize they actually have to educate their students," Hamana said.
Another promising change has been an opening of Japan's doors to more foreign students, whose numbers have increased in recent years, but are still far fewer than in the US. Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, founded in 2000 in Beppu, a southern city, could be the shape of things to come in Japan.
Almost half its 5,421 students are from overseas, mainly China and South Korea. About 42 percent of the 128 faculty members are also foreign, including the president, who is from Sri Lanka.
Half of the university's classes are taught in English. The school is also unusual in Japan because it has a full-fledged, US-style career office to help students find jobs.
The university has been rapidly expanding, and its international environment and solid academic program have proved a draw for young Japanese. Last year, 3,753 applied for about 750 spots.
What Japanese universities are desperate to avoid is a fate like that of Hagi International University, one of the three universities to fail because of too few students.
Hagi converted from a two-year junior college to a four-year university in 1999 with grandiose plans of becoming the region's top school. But from the beginning, it failed to attract its annual capa-city of 300 freshmen. The campus became increasingly empty as new enrollees dropped from about 200 the first year to just three last year, the school said.
The university first tried to fill its thinning ranks by recruiting in China, but the immigration authorities stopped that in 2002 after 26 Chinese students disappeared, apparently to work illegally in Japan, the university said. Next it hired a top professional golfer and offered Japan's first major in golf culture, but that drew only about 30 students.
Deep in the red, Hagi International sought court protection for bankruptcy in 2005.
"We tried to find ways to attract new students," said Masanori Hatachi, the president of the university, which now has a new owner and a new name, Yamaguchi University of Human Welfare and Culture.
"Problem was, there just weren't a lot of new students to be found," he said.
After bankruptcy, a construction company took over and revived it as a smaller university offering degrees in the health field.
Hatachi said the new focus should make it more competitive because in rapidly graying Japan, care for the elderly is one of the few guaranteed growth markets for young job seekers.
"It's not enough anymore to offer a traditional education," he said. "A university has to be a place where students think they can learn what they need."
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