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Japan is offering free education to low-income students

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Japan is heavily investing in education to increase access for less wealthy students. But is this enough? Source: Shutterstock.com

Japan is offering generous scholarship schemes to low-income families in a bid to create equal education opportunities across the country.

A ¥800 billion (US$7.2 billion) government investment will enable students from low-income households to be eligible for free education at national universities. Fees at private universities, two-year colleges and vocational schools will also be subsidised from 2020, reported University World News (UWN).

This investment is part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s goal to increase Japan’s productivity by 10 percent in four years. He also promised to subsidise education costs from pre-school to university and to improve elderly care.

Private institutions in Japan make up 80 percent of the country’s universities, and charge up to ¥1.2 million ($10,800) annually, on top of ¥300,000 or $2,700 for entrance fees. That is almost double the cost of attending a lower quality national university.

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At kindergarten and lower school levels, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development noted Japan has one of the highest education equality figures in the world.

But at university level, less wealthy students may have to choose to attend a lower quality but more affordable institution – or take out a larger loan to pay for private university.

If a proposed new government scheme is confirmed, low-income students may have the opportunity to apply for a scholarship where the government will pay for their tuition if they are accepted by a university.

The main supplier of student loans, Japan Students Services Organization (JASSO), reported 51 percent of students depend on some funding from JASSO or elsewhere, compared with only 31 percent in 2004.

This means low-income students are graduating from higher education with debt weighing them down as they begin their adult lives, while wealthier students can graduate debt-free.

Yuki Honda, a professor at the Graduate School of Education, University of Tokyo, told UWN the government’s scholarship scheme is “linked to increasing Japan’s economic production, now stalled by student debt and the rising number of youth who are shelving starting families, contributing to a serious demographic decline”.

The education ministry aims to free the students of debt and support them to start new ventures or use their university education to get jobs in a rapidly-changing employment environment, according to its website.

However, Honda worries that the government’s scheme is too selective and will only benefit a very small number of low-income students. It sets conditions that cannot be necessarily be met by the target group of disadvantaged students, such as the ability and motivation to start new ventures.

If the government fails to create equal access to quality higher education, Honda fears that a deep wealth divide will form in Japan.

The Head of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Tokyo Centre, Yumiko Murakami, thinks that even if equal access to education is achieved through government schemes, there needs to be a shift in Japan’s education itself for the country’s potential to be unlocked.

While the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) shows 15-year-olds in Japan are ranked among the top academic achievers in the world, they rank near the bottom for self-confidence and entrepreneurial spirit.

In order to prepare students to propel Japan’s social and economic climate to new heights, Murakami argues the government needs to not only create equal access to education, but also an education that equates to tomorrow’s needs.

“Access to education is important, but that is not enough. Even more critical is access to an education that assists people become relevant in the future economy. Investment in our next generations will reward Japan in this regard,” said Murakami.

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