Spike in dropouts forcing Japanese to focus on student well-being

University leavers jumped 40 per cent in 2021, according to government figures

March 23, 2022
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Japan’s recent surge of student dropouts has pushed institutions to pay closer attention to the problem despite the country’s historically low attrition rates.

Between April and December 2021, the number of Japanese students leaving higher education without completing a degree increased to 1,937 – up 40 per cent from the year prior, according to figures recently released by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT).

Hiroshi Ota, a researcher of higher education at Hitotsubashi University, said the recent uptick reinforced the idea that “universities need to figure out how to support student life in the Covid and post-Covid eras”.

“Specifically, universities have to deal with the loss of dreams and goals that prevent students from pursuing the career paths they had envisioned,” said Professor Ota.

While the pandemic is most likely to blame for the rise in student dropouts – with figures expected to lower as the pandemic wanes – the issue still gave educators ample cause for concern, said Noriko Osumi, vice-president of Tohoku University and a professor of developmental neuroscience.

“More and more, Japanese universities pay attention to students’ well-being, which is not just due to Covid-19, but also from the situation in Japan with less and less children,” she said, referring to the country’s population decline.

She said institutions know that “we need to attract students” to keep enrolment figures steady. Increasingly, that means also addressing student retention.

At Tohoku, for instance, administrators rolled out special financial aid for pandemic-hit students, employing some of them as teaching assistants.

Masayuki Kobayashi, a professor in the Center for Research and Development of Higher Education at the University of Tokyo, praised universities, saying that “many HEIs have started new financial assistance programmes to improve the economic difficulties caused by Covid-19”.

Of the student dropouts surveyed by MEXT last year, 30.3 per cent cited lack of motivation to study or poor adjustment to university life and 19.9 per cent said they struggled to pay fees.

The figures are a reversal of the previous year, when 28.1 per cent of students quit because of economic hardship and 20 per cent dropped out from lack of motivation.

Professor Kobayashi also credited Japan’s government-funded scheme to help cash-strapped undergraduate students, which was launched in 2020, with preventing students from dropping out for financial reasons.  

“This is a very epoch-making big programme in Japanese student financial aid history…we found this programme improved the access of low-income students to higher education,” he said.

Still, he stressed that in most cases in which students fail to finish university, there is a “complicated relationship of causes”.

“The MEXT survey asks HEIs to choose only one reason such as mental health, economic hardship, family relations, etc. But these factors are interrelated,” he said.

Despite the recent surge in university leavers, academics acknowledge that Japan’s share of university dropouts was still “small” relative to that of other nations.  

Dropouts accounted for 0.06 per cent of all Japanese students. In the UK, 9.4 per cent of full-time students were projected to leave higher education ahead of completing their degree this year, in what was praised as a record low.

Professor Osumi chalked this down to a combination of low tuition fees and social pressure to stay the course.

“There is a pressure for the students to be ‘similar to others’, so…quitting the university can be a higher hurdle for most of the Japanese students,” she said.


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