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Home > Special Topics > Social Trends Last Updated: 15:18 03/09/2007
Social Trends #47: July 7, 2003

Gender Equality in Japanese Education:
Part Four - The Changing Nature of the University-Prospective Student Relationship

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

A full list of articles in this series can be found here.

The nineties witnessed an incredible transformation in the traditional relationship between the university and the prospective candidate. Instead of the old method in which the student actively sought out a university, the reverse gradually began to occur. This trend had a profound effect on the gender-balance in higher education, resulting in a surge in the number of female students entering four-year universities. This shift may also signal the death-knell for the two-year junior college system.

The number of school age children in the Japanese population peaked in 1992 and has been in decline ever since. The actual number of children born each year has been falling since 1974. The figures in the table below reveal the scale of the decline over the last two decades. Late marriage and childbirth trends are resulting in lower birthrates, meaning the decrease in young people is a long-term trend. This drop is having a wide range of social and economic consequences , many of which are presently discernable in the education system. It is this demographic shift that has been a key factor behind eliminating some of the ingrained gender-imbalance in higher education.

Number of Live Births in Japan 1983-2002
YearNumber of Live Births
Source: Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, 2003

One obvious aspect of the current population trend is that there is an ever decreasing pool of potential college and university students. Another less apparent consequence is the steady rise in the number of female students at four-year universities (see Part One). Since the early nineties, four-year establishments have been heavily investing in finding new recruits amongst the rapidly evaporating stock of potential students. The ever dwindling supply of candidates has meant that there is now fierce competition among universities and junior colleges for new students. This has put a tremendous financial strain on two-year women's junior colleges because the student-shortage has forced four-year universities to poach many female candidates who would have previously entered the two-year system. The current intense competition between the two types of institute for essentially the same potential students may eventually lead to the complete demise of the two-year junior college system.

There are also several other important factors relating to the cost of education and parental attitudes towards gender that are closely linked to the upswing in female numbers at four-year universities. Some of these issues were discussed in Part Two and a more detailed analysis is provided in the next installment of this series (Part Five).

The decrease in the number of young people in the population has also meant that generally speaking it is becoming progressively easier and less expensive to enter higher education. Fewer potential candidates translate into less competition for places at colleges and universities, which are now battling between themselves to win the hand of prospective candidates. It is only entry into Japan's elite universities that still requires a considerable outlay of economic resources.

It is important to note that educational expenditure didn't just include such items as tuition fees, but also encompassed cram school, preparatory school, private tuition and entrance exam fees. Reductions in total outlay on these high cost areas made university education even more attractive to the parents of potential female students.

Until the early nineties, the monetary cost of obtaining admission to university was extremely high and worked against women. Additionally, because admission to universities was incredibly competitive, students would often have to spend a year or two studying to pass university entrance exams. In the past, this disadvantaged girls as a university path might mean graduating from university at 24 or 25, which was then about the age women were expected to marry. Remaining unmarried past this age could hamper a woman's chances of marrying; the last thing most parents would want. Parents were more concerned about their daughter's eventual marriage and childbearing prospects than about her career. Thus, easier entry to the four-year system helped facilitate a re-evaluation of university education for women, which in turn has altered attitudes about gender roles in society.

In the nineties, fewer children and changing attitudes towards gender meant the gates of four-year universities finally began to open to female students. However, the new influx of women into the four-year system has created its own new forms of gender-segregation. These will be examined in a later article in this series. The only real losers in the current scenario are the junior colleges which are suffering drastic, if not terminal, declines in student numbers as more and more women advance to university.

Other Articles in the Gender Equality in Japanese Education Series

Gender Equality in Japanese Education Part Three: How Gender Imbalances in Education Impede Women in the Workplace

Gender Equality in Japanese Education Part Two: The Development of the Two-year Women's Junior College System

Gender Equality in Japanese Education Part One: Male and Female Participation Rates in Higher Education

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