Higher education in Japan is supported by an army of part-time lecturers who are unable to secure stable employment or decent wages despite their advanced degrees. The pandemic has highlighted the plight of this academic underclass and the deeper problems of which it is a symptom.
The COVID-19 pandemic has called renewed attention to the economic insecurity plaguing Japan’s freelancers, gig workers, and fixed-term contract employees, a group whose ranks have swollen over the past 25 years. Among them are thousands of part-time university lecturers, an army of advanced degree holders teaching university classes for a pittance. The authors of a recent report on the subject speak out about this academic underclass and the fundamental fragility of Japan’s institutions of higher education.
A Murky Picture
It is well known that Japanese universities, particularly private institutions, depend heavily on the services of low-paid part-time lecturers (also known as adjunct instructors), but their circumstances are difficult to document quantitatively.
“People have been talking about the problem of part-time lecturers since the 1990s, but it’s hard to get an exact handle on the situation,” says Professor Emeritus Haba Kumiko of Aoyama Gakuin University, director of the Japan Association for the Improvement of Conditions of Women Scientists (JAICOWS). “MEXT [the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology] doesn’t even keep official statistics on workers in this category, and you can’t easily conduct surveys at the institutional level.” There are pay gaps between national and private universities, as well as by discipline, gender, and age. Moreover, employment and pay systems vary widely, making income and pay differentials hard to quantify. “It’s a complicated picture,” says Haba.
From January to March 2018, JAICOWS conducted a questionnaire survey of adjunct instructors with the cooperation of the Union of University Part-time Lecturers in Tokyo Area and the University Part-time Lecturers Union Kansai. The timing of the survey was no accident. The revised Labor Contracts Act had come into effect in April 2013, five years earlier. Ostensibly designed to “relieve the nonrenewal anxiety of workers on fixed-term contracts,” the law prohibited nonrenewal of contracts without good cause and required employers to offer all fixed-term employees with five years of service the option of a regular position. With the five-year deadline looming, “many private and public universities moved to deny renewal to almost all their part-time lecturers to avoid having to offer them permanent positions,” says Haba.
In March 2021, responding to a renewed sense of crisis triggered by the pandemic, JAICOWS published a blistering report titled Hijōkin kōshi wa ima! (Part-time Lecturers Now!), citing the results of the 2018 questionnaire and other data.
The Ultra-Educated Working Poor
Among those responding to the JAICOWS survey, about 62% were 40 or older. The majority indicated that their main source of income was their teaching job, and well over half (59.1% of men and 55.6% of women) reported annual earnings of ¥1.5 million or less (roughly US $13,600). Only 10% earned ¥3 million (roughly $27,000) or more a year. This puts them solidly in the “working poor” category. Moreover, about 72% of respondents juggled jobs at two or more schools. About three-quarters taught at least three classes a week, and about a quarter taught between nine and twenty—a grueling schedule when one figures in time required for class preparation and grading of tests and reports.
According to Haba, some part-time lecturers supplement their meager earnings by working early-morning and late-night shifts in convenience stores. This leaves precious little time for their own research. “I don’t feel that their basic right to a decent life is being respected,” says Haba.
Many respondents expressed their pain and frustration in the “remarks” section of the questionnaire. “Basically, my hourly rate has not gone up since 1990. . . . Teaching 10 or more classes a week is physically exhausting,” lamented a male instructor in his fifties. A woman in her forties wrote, “By working other part-time jobs, I manage to get by, but the burden of student loans and health insurance is heavy, and I worry about the future.”
Needless to say, part-time lecturers receive very few of the benefits accorded permanent faculty members. Most of their expenses are not reimbursed. Furthermore, their access to public research grants is limited (see below). All told, the average part-time lecturer spends more time teaching than a professor while getting by on a fraction of the income. As Haba sees it, the straitened circumstances of these scholars directly reflect “the fragility of Japan’s universities, the backbone of our knowledge infrastructure.”
The rapid shift to online teaching since the pandemic hit has only added to the burden. The Kansai and Tokyo-area unions report that preparation time has risen sharply, with many instructors complaining that their workload has doubled. Moreover, unlike regular faculty and students, who receive subsidies to pay for the equipment needed to teach or take online classes, many part-time lecturers have had to pay entirely out of their own pockets to upgrade their systems and purchase peripherals, such as webcams and headsets.
The Birth of an Academic Underclass
At one time, the job of part-time lecturer was something a tenured professor did on the side—a kind of legitimate moonlighting. Today, it is a full-time job for thousands of advanced degree holders competing for a handful of permanent positions. How did such a lopsided labor market evolve?
The biggest factor was the proliferation of Japanese universities and grad schools from the 1990s on, even as the student population fell. The number of 18-year-olds in Japan peaked in 1992 at about 2.1 million; by 2020, it had plunged to 1.2 million. During the same time, however, the number of universities surged, with MEXT’s blessing, rising from 507 in 1990 to 795 in 2020. Most of the new institutions were privately funded universities featuring a variety of graduate degree programs, reflecting the government’s ambitions for upgrading higher education in Japan.
With enrollment falling, the newer private schools soon found themselves in a precarious financial position. Their answer was to cut personnel costs by relying ever more heavily on the services of low-paid part-time lecturers. Today, adjunct instructors decisively outnumber full-time faculty members at most private universities, sometimes accounting for 60% or more of the school’s teaching staff.
Nor have Japan’s prestigious national universities been immune from the trend. Since 2004, the government has been steadily reducing its “operational subsidies” to those institutions and replacing them with competitive funding targeted to strategic areas of education and research. Lacking the funds to expand their full-time faculty roster, particularly in less-favored departments, these elite schools have also been obliged to fall back on part-time instructors.
Meanwhile, MEXT’s emphasis on the establishment and expansion of graduate schools has created a boundless source of cheap labor for financially strapped universities. In the 1990s, the government called for a sharp increase in the number of students in postgraduate degree programs as part of its strategy for boosting Japan’s competitiveness in the knowledge-intensive global economy. The number of masters and doctoral programs multiplied, as did the number of students completing them. Unfortunately, the government’s vision extended only to the conferral of degrees; it made no provision for the degree holders’ future. This short-sighted policy gave rise to a permanent academic underclass of part-time lecturers trapped in low-paying positions.
Human Sciences: Advance at Your Own Risk
In another society, such surplus scholars might have given up on academic careers and found work in private industry. But Japanese businesses tend to shun advanced degree holders, preferring to recruit and train youngsters fresh out of college. In recent years, MEXT has moved to address the glut in science PhDs by working with businesses to set up internships leading to jobs in private industry. Scholars in the social sciences and humanities, however, are basically on their own.
The problem has been building ever since the 1970s, says part-time lecturer Matsumura Hinako, a PhD in law. “Even so, from the 1990s on, new private universities kept popping up, one after another, most of them featuring graduate programs in the social sciences and humanities.”
In 2019, the Asahi Shimbun ran an in-depth story ominously titled “Bunkei no hakase katei —‘Susumu to hametsu’” (Doctoral Studies in the Humanities, the Road to Ruin). It spotlighted the tragic case of a woman scholar who had received her PhD in Japanese history from Tōhoku University (one of Japan’s top national schools) in 2004. She was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and in 2008 published a book on Buddhism that garnered two prestigious awards. Yet even after applying to more than 20 universities, she was unable to secure stable employment. She eventually married to avoid financial ruin, but the marriage failed. In 2016, at the age of 43, she took her own life. Unfortunately, hers is not an isolated case.
“It’s such a waste of talent, not to mention a waste of taxpayers’ money,” comments Matsumura. “At the very least, adjunct faculty should be paid enough to live on while they pursue their research.”
Advocating for the Underclass
Championing the rights of this underclass are the regional unions, particularly the Union of University Part-time Lecturers in Tokyo Area and the University Part-time Lecturers Union Kansai, both established in the mid-1990s. Beginning in 2013, the Tokyo-area union led a four-year battle to halt an attempt by Waseda University to terminate all part-time instructors before they reached the five-year mark—a practice prohibited under the Labor Contracts Act. The union and the university finally reached a settlement favorable to the part-time lecturers, but other schools have used a variety of stratagems to avoid hiring their adjuncts as regular employees.
The regional unions continue working to secure fair treatment and better conditions for part-time lecturers, primarily through collective bargaining. However, at most universities, membership remains low. Younger instructors shun the unions out of fear of retaliation, says Matsumura, who served as president of the Tokyo area union for a decade. They worry that they will be passed over for permanent positions or that the administration will seize on some pretext to allow their contracts to expire without renewal.
“Most adjunct instructors don’t join the union until they’ve reached their early forties,” says Matsumura. “Up until your mid-forties, you still have a shot at becoming a regular faculty member. A lot of people make up their minds to join the union only when they realize that window has closed.”
What Needs to Be Done
Improving the research environment for these scholars would be an important step in the right direction, says Haba. Guaranteed eligibility for public Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research (Kakenhi), administered by the JSPS, is vital. “MEXT claims that part-time lecturers are eligible,” says Haba, “but the universities are the gatekeepers, and most private universities won’t process applications from their part-time lecturers, claiming they can’t afford the administrative costs.”
The most pressing problem, however, is the yawning disparity in pay. “It’s shameful for people who have earned a doctoral degree to be making 2 million yen or less a year,” says Haba. “The universities and the government should be treating them as a precious resource to be nurtured.”
Unfortunately, the budget crunch facing universities is real. “They’re not likely to improve part-time lecturers’ conditions at the expense of their full-time faculty,” says Haba. “As part of our national strategy for boosting our global competitiveness, we should develop robust mechanisms for tapping the knowledge and energy of young researchers through collaboration between academia and industry. Most of all, I think it’s high time big business started putting some of those retained earnings to work by investing proactively in higher education.”
The government, too, needs to offer subsidies to a wider range of institutions—public and private alike—not just the elite national schools with the resources to win competitive grants. Without a major infusion of public and private funds into higher education and research, Haba warns, Japan is going to be left far behind, not only by the industrial West but by its East Asian neighbors as well.
To address the plight of part-time lecturers, however, the first step must be a thoroughgoing fact-finding study by MEXT to quantify the circumstances of adjunct instructors around Japan. “Lacking that kind of data,” says Matsumura, “it’s almost impossible to get an issue on the political agenda.”
(Originally written in Japanese by Itakura Kimie of Nippon.com)