To Tokyo, where the ruling Liberal Democrats are considering adopting a proposal from a small right-wing party (Nippon Ishin no Kai – roughly, Japan Restoration Party) to enshrine a constitutional right to free tuition. This is not, it is safe to say, because of any principled attachment to accessible education – the party opposed free secondary education (which the Democratic Party implemented during its brief, mostly hapless, stint in government which ended five years ago) as recently as a couple of years ago, calling it “an unprincipled policy to buy votes”.
So what’s behind Shinzo Abe’s new ploy? Two things. First, Prime Minister Abe’s attempts to kick-start Japan’s long-stalled economy have had only middling success. Free tuition would in effect be another Keynesian stimulus, freeing lots of family savings to be spent on other things. Now, technically that doesn’t require a constitutional change, but some observers think Abe would not be able to get a free-tuition proposal worth 5 trillion Yen (C$60 billion) through a normal budgetary approval process; a constitutional amendment would make the spending automatic, thus circumventing the budget process.
But the bigger reason is much more Machiavellian. Abe’s fondest political wish is to alter the Japanese Constitution, written in 1945 by US occupying forces, to remove Article 9, which bans Japan from having armed forces. Though Abe himself if popular, this proposal is not: since World War II the Japanese have become about as peacefully-minded nation as one can imagine. And so, Abe is trying to tie a constitutional amendment on free-tuition to a constitutional amendment on the armed forces to sweeten the deal.
A couple of points here. First, this would be a policy reversal on a massive scale. As R. Taggart Murphy noted back here Japan deliberately kept tuition, along with land values, high in the postwar period as a form of industrial policy (note: if you are interested in Japan and not reading R. Taggart Murphy, especially his magnificent book Japan: The Shackles of the Past, you’re doing it wrong). High savings meant low interest rates, which gave Japanese industrialists access to cheap capital, which in turn gave them a big manufacturing cost advantage, and Japan rode this to economic success in the 1960s. Basically, short term pain for long term gain. Now, Abe wants to reverse this process.
The bigger question, though – and not one I have seen discussed anywhere in the Japanese press – is how on earth one implements a free tuition promise in a country where somewhere between 75 and 80% of all students attend private universities. Making tuition free at national (public) universities is a cinch, but – as Chile discovered a couple of years ago – trying to do the same with private universities without outright nationalization is kind of difficult. Fees vary from one institution to another: how would each be compensated in a consistent manner?
There’s something similar going on the other side of the Sea of Japan, where new Korean President Moon Jae-in has promised to halve tuition fees. This isn’t the first time Koreans have heard such a pledge. In 2011, months of student protests forced then-President Lee Myung-bak to make a similar pledge; however, in the end nothing was done and fees stayed the same (fee levels in Korea are similar to those in Canada). But again, it’s not entirely clear how once can effectively deliver on a fee-reduction pledge in a system which is dominated by private universities without partial or outright nationalization, which seems unlikely.
If I had to guess, I’d say Korea’s the likelier to implement policy change because a) I don’t think Article 9 is going anywhere, free tuition or no and b) the Korean government is just a lot better at getting stuff done. But we’ll see. Two stories to watch, for sure.