Universities in Japan

University entrance is the traditional route taken by Japanese students to enter the gateway of higher education as it is by far the most prestigious form of higher education in Japan. Unlike the usage of grade point averages and test scores used in Western countries as a yardstick for eligibility, entrance to universities based largely on the scores that students achieved in entrance examinations (nyūgaku shiken (入学試験)). Private institutions accounted for nearly 80% of all university enrollments in 1991, but with a few exceptions such as Waseda University and Keio University, the public national universities are more highly regarded. Especially, National Seven Universities are the most prestigious. This distinction had its origins in historical factors—the long years of dominance of the select imperial universities, such as Tokyo and Kyoto universities, which trained Japan's leaders before the war—and also in differences in quality, particularly in facilities and faculty ratios.

In addition, certain prestigious employers, notably the government and selected large corporations (e.g. those listed in Nikkei 225), continue to restrict their hiring of new employees to graduates of the most esteemed universities. There is a close link between university background and employment opportunity. Because Japanese society places such store in academic credentials, the competition to enter the prestigious universities is keen. A common custom practiced by Japanese employers is simultaneous recruiting of new graduates.

Students applying to national or other public universities take two entrance examinations, first a nationally administered uniform achievement test (senta shiken (センター試験)) and then an examination administered by the university that the student hopes to enter (niji shiken (二次試験)). Applicants to private universities need to take only the university's examination.

Such intense competition means that many students cannot compete successfully for admission to the college of their choice. An unsuccessful student can either accept an admission elsewhere, forgo a college education, or wait until the following spring to take the national examinations again. A large number of students choose the last option. These students, called ronin, meaning masterless samurai, spend an entire year, and sometimes longer, studying for another attempt at the entrance examinations. In 2011, the number of ronin who took the uniform test is 110,211, while the number of high school students who took the test is 442,421.

Yobikou are private schools that, like many juku, help students prepare for entrance examinations. While yobikou have many programs for upper-secondary school students, they are best known for their specially designed full-time, year-long classes for ronin. The number of applicants to four-year universities totaled almost 560,000 in 1988. Ronin accounted for about 40% of new entrants to four-year colleges in 1988. Most ronin were men, but about 14% were women. The ronin experience is so common in Japan that the Japanese education structure is often said to have an extra ronin year built into it.

Yobikou sponsor a variety of programs, both full-time and part-time, and employ an extremely sophisticated battery of tests, student counseling sessions, and examination analysis to supplement their classroom instruction. The cost of yobikou education is high, comparable to first-year university expenses, and some specialized courses at yobikou are even more expensive. Some yobikou publish modified commercial versions of the proprietary texts they use in their classrooms through publishing affiliates or by other means, and these are popular among the general population preparing for college entrance exams. Yobikou also administer practice examinations throughout the year, which they open to all students for a fee.

In the late 1980s, the examination and entrance process were the subjects of renewed debate. In 1987 the schedule of the Joint First Stage Achievement Test was changed, and the content of the examination itself was revised for 1990. The schedule changes for the first time provided some flexibility for students wishing to apply to more than one national university. The new Joint First Stage Achievement Test was prepared and administered by the National Center for University Entrance Examinations and was designed to accomplish better assessment of academic achievement.

The Ministry of Education hoped many private schools would adopt or adapt the new national test to their own admissions requirements and thereby reduce or eliminate the university tests. But, by the time the new test was administered in 1990, few schools had displayed any inclination to do so. The ministry urged universities to increase the number of students admitted through alternate selection methods, including admission of students returning to Japan from long overseas stays, admission by recommendation, and admission of students who had graduated from upper-secondary schools more than a few years before. Although a number of schools had programs in place or reserved spaces for returning students, only 5% of university students were admitted under these alternate arrangements in the late 1980s.

Other college entrance issues include proper guidance for college placement at the upper-secondary level and better dissemination of information about university programs. The ministry provides information through the National Center for University Entrance Examination's on-line information access system and encourages universities, faculties, and departments to prepare brochures and video presentations about their programs.

In 2010 more than 2.8 million students were enrolled in Japan's 778 universities. At the top of the higher education structure, these institutions provide four-year training leading to a bachelor's degree, and some offer six-year programs leading to a professional degree. There are two types of public four-year colleges: the 86 national universities (including The Open University) and the 95 local public universities, founded by prefectures and municipalities. The 597 remaining four-year colleges in 2010 were private.

The overwhelming majority of college students attend full-time day programs. In 2005 the most popular courses, enrolling almost 38% of all undergraduate students, were in the social sciences, including business, law, and accounting. Other popular subjects were engineering (17.3%), the humanities (16%), and education (5.7%).

Truancy among Japanese university students, even at expensive private institutions, is extremely high. Roll calls are perfunctory or easily avoided.

The average costs (tuition, fees, and living expenses) for a year of higher education in 1986 were 1.4 million Yen(US$10,000), of which parents paid a little less than 80%, or about 20% of the average family's income in 1986. To help defray expenses, students frequently work part-time or borrow money through the government-supported Japan Scholarship Association. Assistance also is offered by local governments, nonprofit corporations, and other institutions.

In 2005 there were approximately 89 females for every 100 males enrolled in post-secondary education in Japan, and their numbers are still slowly increasing. Women's choices of majors and programs of study still tend to follow traditional patterns, with more than two-thirds of all women enroll in education, social sciences, or humanities courses. Only 15% studied scientific and technical subjects, and women represented less than 3% of students in engineering, the most popular subject for men in 1991.

The quality of universities and higher education in Japan is internationally recognized. There are 11 Japanese universities in the 2006 THES - QS World University Rankings, with the University of Tokyo 19th and Kyoto University 25th. In 2010 the QS Asia University Rankings Top 20 included eight Japanese universities, with the highest ranking, the University of Tokyo, in 5th position. Out of the top 100 Asian universities in 2011's Times Higher Education - QS World University Rankings, 33 were Japanese.

Postgraduate education
Graduate schools became a part of the formal higher education system only after World War II and were still not stressed in the 1990s. Even though 60% of all universities have graduate schools, only 7% of university graduates advance to master's programs, and total graduate school enrollment is about 4% of the entire university student population.

The pattern of graduate enrollment is almost the opposite of that of undergraduates: the majority (63%) of all graduate students are enrolled in the national universities, and it appears that the disparity between public and private graduate enrollments is widening. Graduate education is largely a male preserve, and women, particularly at the master's level, are most heavily represented in the humanities, social sciences, and education. Men are frequently found in engineering programs where, at the master's level, women comprise only 2% of the students. At the doctoral level, the two highest levels of female enrollment are found in medical programs and the humanities, where in both fields 30% of doctoral students are women. Women account for about 13% of all doctoral enrollments.

The generally small numbers of graduate students and the graduate enrollment profile results from a number of factors, especially the traditional employment pattern of industry. In the private sector, the demand for students with advanced degrees (especially in the non-hard sciences) is low compared to other developed countries. This is because private sector companies frequently prefer to hire new university graduates and train them to operate according to company guidelines. Stated negatively, this is because the skills generally associated with postgraduate education in the West (especially independent thinking) make the employee resistant to homogenization. Thus, students avoid taking graduate work unless in the hard sciences.