On June 8, Hakubun Shimomura, Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, sent a letter to the 86 national universities, asking them to take “active steps to abolish [social science and humanities] departments or convert them to areas that would better meet society’s needs.” American educators have been both perplexed and critical of this mandate, some to the point of threatening to end exchange programs with Japanese universities. For those who love the humanities and social sciences, it is beyond comprehension that a national government would decide to focus on only one type of education—science and technology. What is behind this?

Some critics believe that the letter reflects Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic strategy that calls on national universities to “build a system to produce human resources that match the needs of society by accurately grasping changes in industrial structure and employment needs.” This editorial also cited speeches given recently by Mr. Abe in which he called on universities to move from deepening theoretical understanding to a more practical, vocational approach that meets the needs to today’s society.

Others simply see this as an indicator of the reality of a greatly diminished population of traditional college-aged students. Teresa Sullivan, president of the University of Virginia, in a recent presentation to a Japan – US Friendship Commission symposium in Washington, DC, observed that for the first time in our history, when we “pass the torch” to the next generation, it will be from the many to the few. By that, she means that there are many fewer high school graduates today than there were in the generation of those now in leadership positions. Instead of the growth that characterized the post-World War II generation, higher education is facing retrenchment. This is a problem for the United States, and it is even more acute in Japan. A decline in population growth, coupled with a sagging economy, puts even greater pressures on universities to focus on developing skills that will help stimulate economic growth.

The instinct to focus on highly marketable skills is not exclusively Japanese. The Governor of North Carolina, Pat McCrory, in a radio interview with former Secretary of Education, William Bennett, argued against “gender studies and Swahili language courses” being taught at state universities. If students want to study these seemingly useless subjects, he said, they should attend private schools. Governor McCrory did not want state funds to subsidize these programs.  Governor McCrory and other fellow governors have attempted to tie public university funding to the employment rate of the graduates of the schools.

The role of the liberal arts (and social sciences) is a sensitive matter for many public institutions. When Ithaka S+R conducted a study of ten public flagship universities, we interviewed ten department chairs (including humanities and social science departments) and the heads of the career centers on all of the campuses. They feel tremendous pressure to produce evidence that their graduates find meaningful jobs. This is difficult, however, because there is not enough administrative support in these departments to track students after they leave the university. Scholarly societies that support humanities and social science also worry about the employability of their disciplines’ graduates, and many of them are considering ways to collect and make accessible data about the jobs that are available after graduation.

It is entirely possible that more data will not be persuasive to those who want to see more vocational training as part of the undergraduate curriculum, but the employers may be the people who will successfully make the case for the liberal arts. As part of the public flagships study, we interviewed twenty of the largest employers in the United States, and asked what they looked for in graduates of publicly funded universities. In every case, they wanted better communication skills (verbal and writing). They wanted graduates who were comfortable working in multi-generational, multi-cultural settings. They wanted graduates who were able to engage others on a personal level. All of them described the excellent technical skills that graduates bring to the workplace, but they lack the “soft skills” needed to work effectively with people. Perhaps, this is the argument for the humanities and social sciences.

The debate that is going on in Japan is one that affects higher education in the United States, as well. University and college presidents, alike, are looking for ways to build more internships into their educational programs as a way of equipping graduates to enter the work force successfully. A few presidents of colleges and universities have made reducing the cost of tuition a high priority so that the investment is more likely to pay off for their students. It may be important to focus now on more dialogue between higher education institutions and elected officials, with each party focusing on the specific problem to be solved (declining student populations, economic stress) and looking for ways that research and greater knowledge can help.