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Doctoral education

needs reform

to compete internationally

By Futao Huang for University World News:

Japan’s doctoral education is not only different from many Western countries – including Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom – but also from neighbouring Asian countries like China and South Korea. So how did it evolve?
Doctoral education in Japan has undergone several major changes since the late 19th century, developing distinctive characteristics during the process. From an historical perspective, Japan established its modern higher education system in the late 19th century, modelled on Western ideas.
However, it is still unclear what overseas ideas or models dominated early forms of Japanese doctoral education and training. Further, little is known of the extent to which doctoral students were trained in Japanese universities before World War II.
In addition, because the fundamental mission of almost all national universities in the Meiji period (1868 to 1912) was to produce government officials and professionals in law, engineering, medicine and other fields at an undergraduate education level, more focus was placed on undergraduate education activities in almost every institution.
Soon after World War II, Japan reformed its national higher education system by learning from US models, including the introduction of an American form of doctoral education. But no significant changes occurred in the basic structure of Japanese doctoral education from the early 1950s to the 1960s. Moreover, there was no comprehensive expansion and development in terms of the organisation and curriculum of doctoral education until the early 1990s.
The number of doctoral students did not really start to increase significantly until the late 1970s. For example, the number of doctoral students grew from 7,429 in 1960 to 11,683 in 1965, 13,243 in 1970 and 14,904 in 1975.
Only after published standards for the establishment of graduate schools were promulgated in the 1970s did the expansion of doctoral education begin in earnest.
Recent changes
Since the 1980s Japan has undergone rapid and widespread expansion of graduate education accompanied by national-level reforms in graduate education throughout the 1990s. National statistics clearly indicate that the number of Japanese doctoral students expanded rapidly between 1985 and 2005. In 2017 there were 73,909 doctoral students, compared to just 7,429 in 1960.
Compared to previous periods, the changes to Japan’s doctoral education have been clear and profound. For example, since the early 1990s two policies have had a significant impact.
Throughout the 1990s, more stress was placed on growing the numbers of both graduate schools and students, but since the early 2000s substantial reforms of qualitative aspects of graduate education, including the curriculum, degrees and admissions, have been carried out.
One result is that the traditional model of doctoral education focusing on writing doctoral dissertations has greatly changed and a new way of producing doctorates by combining both coursework and a doctoral dissertation has been widely adopted.
In recent years, doctoral students’ employment destinations have become more varied. For example, relevant data from a national survey of doctoral degree holders suggests that, as of 2012, 60% became academics – 52.6% hired by universities and 7.4% by public research institutes. Some 26.1% of doctoral graduates worked in private enterprises – among them 7.7% in non-profit organisations, 3.5% who were self-employed and 2.8% were independent and unaffiliated to any workplace – and 14% of them didn’t fit into any of these categories.
The development and expansion of graduate schools have led to huge changes to Japan’s doctoral education. However, there are lots of challenges that remain.
Firstly, as of 2017, compared to an enrolment ratio of 50.6% of students at an undergraduate level, if the numbers of mature students are excluded, only 0.7% of the population are enrolled at a doctoral level. From international and comparative perspectives, as of 2016 there were 121 doctoral degree holders per one million people in Japan, compared to 266 in the US, 344 in Germany, 179 in France, 286 in the UK and 274 in Korea.
This suggests that the scale of Japanese doctoral education is still small compared to these countries.
Secondly, compared to North America and continental European countries, doctoral students in Japan seem to bear heavier economic burdens. One of the most important reasons for this is that very few doctoral students receive sufficient public funding for their living expenses, study and research.
For instance, government statistics shows that, as of 2015, only 10.4% of doctoral students received more than US$16,200 per year (the minimum living wage in Japan) to help them study, if the number of doctoral students who received loan-type scholarships is excluded.
Further, 52.2% of doctoral students did not receive any financial support, with no tuition or fee exemptions or any other loans. This is one of the main reasons why very few excellent university graduates are willing to enrol in doctoral programmes.
Thirdly, despite the fact that doctoral graduates have had more varied employment destinations since the 1990s, from the perspective of industry and business, a mismatch between doctoral education and the labour market still exists.
According to a 2007 report by the Keidanren, the Japan Business Federation, despite a rapid rise in the number of doctoral students, industry and business and universities believe that the top talent among university graduates does not often go on to doctoral study and are unclear as to the added value of doctoral graduates. The means industry and business are quite passive regarding hiring doctoral degree holders.
Further, due to the fact that Japanese doctoral programmes concentrate on the cultivation of researchers for the academic profession, they rarely develop programmes that are relevant to diverse career paths for doctoral graduates.
Specific issues concerning doctoral programmes include an overemphasis on research rather than equipping students with other capacities, a narrow focus on certain academic fields and research topics, a lack of research based on interdisciplinary fields, too much emphasis on the doctoral dissertation, a lack of familiarity with technology and a preponderance of research topics and doctoral dissertations that are irrelevant and unimportant to industry and business.
As a result, most enterprises prefer to employ graduates from masters programmes.
Finally, the rapid expansion of doctoral education has not been sufficiently accompanied by attention being paid to the labour market for doctoral graduates. Japan is arguably one of the worst countries from which to graduate with a science PhD.
Because of the continual decline in the number of 18 year olds, the number of jobs at universities and colleges is falling and Japanese industry and business are not interested in employing doctoral graduates either, because they have traditionally preferred young, fresh bachelor graduates who can be trained on the job.
These challenges make it difficult for Japan to attract more of the world’s top doctoral students and boost its reputation.
The steady decline in the number of 18 year olds in Japan, in combination with increasing international competition for international students, especially from neighbouring countries such as China, Korea and Singapore as well as Hong Kong, make it extremely challenging for Japanese universities to attract more inbound international students at the doctoral level.
There is little doubt that if Japan wants to improve the quality and enhance the international competitiveness of its doctoral education, it needs to make more effort to address the challenges that are holding it back.
Futao Huang is professor at the Research Institute for Higher Education, Hiroshima University, Japan. E-mail: This article is based on a chapter in the forthcoming book Trends and Issues in Doctoral Education Worldwide: An international research inquiry co-edited by Philip G Altbach, Maria Yudkevich and Hans de Wit. The book will be published by SAGE.