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Takehiko KARIYA

Can expanded opportunities of university education help Japanese youth transition to work?

Takehiko Kariya
University of Oxford


The emergence of a global knowledge-based economy has given rise to drastic changes in both higher education and employment. On one hand, governments in advanced societies have launched policies to expand higher education to compete internationally in educating and attracting highly skilled workers. At the same time, both global economic competition and governmental policies to cut labour costs and increase labour mobility have led to a workforce increasingly polarized between groups of high- and low-skilled workers, the latter face increasing, often intense, job insecurity. These changes, in turn, combine to produce a serious problem of inflation of education credentials, namely rapid expansion of university education.

In this term, Japan is an ‘ideal type’ (in the Weberian sense), because on the one hand, Japanese society has experienced rapid and substantial expansion of higher education over the past two decades, on the other hand, Japanese economy has confronted drastic changes in the labour market, witnessing significant increases in the number of part-time, dispatched and short-term contract workers under the pressure of globalization. Such Japanese experiences have been unfolded in a much faster pace with greater magnitude than in other advanced societies including France. Under these circumstances, it is important to ask the following questions: Can expanded opportunities of university education help Japanese youth transition to work? How are changes and divergences in the values of university degrees linked with changes in influences of individuals’ familial background? Japan could be an ideal case to test these questions.

The national statistics indicate that the total number of those enrolled increased from 2,043,000 in 1990 to 2,514,000 in 2007. Enrolment rates for the population of 18 year olds also rose from 25.4% to 47.2% over the same period. In addition to the university sector, 21% of the same age population in vocational training schools, 6% in two-year junior colleges and 49% in four-year colleges/universities. In total, 77% of the same age cohort now attend various forms of tertiary education. By the first decade of the twenty-first century then, Japanese university education had already reached the ‘universal’ stage.

As for employment for youth, coinciding with the long economic slump of the 1990s, the economic pressures generated by global competition contributed to the rapid erosion of the stability and longevity of employment, which was previously protected by employment regulations in both laws and customs. Statistics reveal how rapidly and significantly the percentages of non-standard employees, such as part-time and dispatched workers, within the workforce increased as a result of these changes, particularly for those aged 15–24; the share of that cohort employed as non-standard workers in 2010 amounted to 41.6% for male and 50.0% for female, respectively– a major change from 20% for both genders in 1990.

To avoid disadvantages in the labour market associated with holding only a high school diploma, an increasing number of secondary school graduates elected to advance to higher education during the 1990s and 2000s. This clearly became another driving force in the expansion of higher education. However, given the rapid decline in the 18-year-old population, as well as the expanded opportunities, the quotas for new university/college students outnumbered even this increasing number of applicants (in other words, there were more places in tertiary education available than students to fill those seats). Thus, entrance to colleges and universities, especially to less prestigious colleges, was getting easier year-on-year in the 1990s.

Under those circumstances, can expanded higher education opportunities make new graduates’ transition to work smoother? Do the increased opportunities of university education reduce social inequality to obtain secured employment positions? To answer these questions, I analyzed nationally sampled survey data of Japanese youth with dividing the respondents into three cohort groups according to the three distinct stages of overall university expansion: the older cohort who reached the age of 18 before the great expansion started, those who confronted the rapid expansion of university education, and the younger cohort who experienced a further growth period of university enrolment up to the ‘universal’ stage.

Statistical analyses reveal the following findings: for the older two cohorts, BA degrees have a positive effect on obtaining chance to have full-time standard first jobs, while those from selective universities do not. On the other hand, for the youngest cohort, BA degrees have a negative effect, while those from selective institutions do have a positive effect on chance to have the secured employment position. These results suggest that before university education reached the ‘universal’ stage, degrees from any institutions gave advantages to their degree holders to access stable jobs, whereas for the youngest generations, only degrees from selective institutions can significantly increase the chance to access full-time standard employment, but those from the less selective universities decrease the chances.

Furthermore, for the younger cohort, private secondary schools have become more advantageous routes to selective universities, although good public high schools were the main route for the older two cohorts. Parental choice and wealth enabling their children to enter private secondary schools now restrict the chance to enter selective universities. Both economic and cultural capitals of family influence children’s access to elite university, then to secured employment.

The aforementioned Japanese experiences seem ironic and pessimistic because rapidly increased opportunities in higher education fail to offer the degree holders with standard full-time jobs, with the threshold demanded by employers to offer secure employment clearly been raised. In the process, the values of selective university degrees have been maintained, while credentials from lower-rank institutions have depreciated. This means that simply increasing, quantitatively, opportunities for higher education do not automatically mitigate social equity issues in higher education. In other words, amidst celebrating the fact that three quarters of Japanese youth now access some sorts of higher education – one of the highest figures in the world - the reality is that educational inequalities have only been extended. Over time access to selective universities has become more severely affected by attendance to private secondary schools, access to which is, in turn, influenced more strongly by socio-economic and cultural aspects of family background for the younger cohort. What is taking place under the guise of universal education in Japan, is thus both the end of the meritocratic system and a new form of inter-generational transmittance of social advantage.