The Language Teacher
November 2001

Falling Student Numbers and the Impact on Employment

Roger Jones

University Teachers' Union Vice-President

A massive wind of change is steadily going to drastically affect all aspects of Japanese life. It comes at a time when the economy is already extremely bruised and battered due to the longest postwar economic depression on record. The problem is the drastically falling birth rates. Indeed, the Japanese population as a whole is going to plummet from a high of around 130,000,000 people -- expected in a few years time -- to less than 96,000,000 people in under 90 years (Japan Statistical Yearbook, 1998). Birth rates are already at an all-time low, and by the year 2008, there will be 20% fewer 18-year-olds than at present (Yoshimi & Onoda, 2001).

These striking population changes will have a dramatic impact on teaching institutions and teachers. Put simply, there are far more school, college, and university places available than there will be students to fill them. The length and breadth of Japan will see a panic situation in educational establishments, which for too long have plundered the goose that laid the golden egg, as they see their huge revenues shrink. Many, perhaps up to 50% of universities, may simply have to close their doors and go out of business.

During the tough times ahead, there is no doubt that the pay and working conditions that face teachers will be under threat. Indeed, it has already happened in its most draconian form, the firing of teachers. At Tokyo Foreign Language College, a two-year vocational institution, the management, between 1996 and 1997, fired a total of 16 teachers, citing falling student numbers as the reason for the layoffs. The fired teachers were all union members and fought against the dismissals. Just recently, a Tokyo District Court judge ruled against the dismissals as excessive and unnecessary despite the falling student numbers. Furthermore, Judge Suzuki ruled that, despite management's claim that the teachers were on one-year contracts, it was not unreasonable for the employees to expect continuing employment at the college -- in other words, to be treated like the lifetime workers at the college. The case has been appealed to the High Court, the result of which could have major implications on employment practices throughout Japan. The Tokyo Foreign Language College case could well be indicative of the approach that management will adopt in educational institutions throughout Japan. They will see a problem of having too many teachers on the books compared to student numbers, and they will simply not renew contracts, which, in particular, will target part-time staff.

Japanese universities are well placed simply to let employees go irrespective of the job that they have done or how long they have worked at the university. Both private and public universities rely heavily on part-time staff; more than 55% of staff at public universities are part-time, while it is approaching 60% for private universities (Daigaku hijoukin koushi mondai kaigihen, 2000). These part-timers are subject to one-year contracts that can easily not be renewed at the whim of the university. Thus, in the difficult times ahead facing universities, one convenient cost cutting measure will be the firing of part-time teachers dressed up as non-renewal of contracts. This will have a domino effect on other university employees, as part-time teachers can be seen to subsidize a higher income for the full-time teachers (Kondo, 1998). Moreover, there will be serious effects on the quality of education delivered at universities and colleges if experienced long-term employees are released.

Other cost cutting measures that some universities have already embarked on are the hiring of dispatch teachers from conversation schools such as Nova, Berlitz, and Geos, rather than directly hiring them themselves. This can give considerable savings to universities through reduced administrative costs, but is to the detriment of the teachers; those conversation lounges will end up taking half the teachers' salary and probably making no -- or minimal provisions -- for paid holidays and other allowances like research funds and offices for office hours. How dispatch teachers will affect the quality of English education taught in universities is also open to much conjecture.

More attacks on pay and working conditions have seen some universities inventing new contracts to save on money, and milk the most out of their non-tenured staff. An annual salary of around ¥3,000,000 is paid to the teacher, who is then expected to teach in excess of 12 koma (twelve 90-minute lessons) a week and be on campus Monday to Friday, from nine to five. The salary is much less than half that of a tenured teaching position with double the teaching hours and more days of attendance expected on campus. In addition, another cost saving device that universities have adopted is the employment of large numbers of part-timers. This saves money because a part-timer's salaries may equate to as little as one-twentieth of the salary of tenured full timers (The Union of Part-Time Lecturers, 2001).

All these changes in pay and working conditions, and much more, are going ahead in educational institutions throughout Japan. Decisions are being made solely by management without any, or little, countervailing power -- a phrase coined by the Canadian economist John Kenneth Galbraith -- from the employees. Thus, the time is more than ripe for teachers to organise into one voice in order to have a constructive say in the future of education in Japan and their working lives. Joining a union in large numbers is a step towards participating in the creation of a better and fairer system for the universities and employees alike. The recently formed University Teachers' Union (UTU), affiliated with the National Union of General Workers, is open to all teachers at universities in Japan. Although it is based in Tokyo, it cooperates with sister unions in Kansai and Kyushu. Its goal is to positively engage employers in order to address the serious issues that face part-time and full-time university teachers regardless of nationality or gender -- issues that will only become more critical in the coming crunch years.

To find out more about joining and the difference you can make to your pay, working conditions and how to keep your job, contact the UTU through the National Union of General Workers (NUGW) at <> or visit the web site at <>. The NUGW also has contacts with various networks of language teachers' unions in fields other than university teaching, where help can be sought if you face employment problems. Roger Jones can be reached at <>; tel/fax: 03-3954-9711.


Daigaku hijoukin koushi mondai kaigihen. (2000). Daigaku kiki to hijoukin koushi undou (The university crisis and the part-time lecturers movement). Tokyo: Kouchi Shobo.

Japan Statistical Yearbook 1998

Kondo, M. 1998. Reflections on the Teaching of English at the Economics Department of Keio University: Four Years of Trail and Evaluation. Keio University.

The Union of Part-time Lecturers in the Tokyo Area. (2001, 27 May). The Collective Requests for the 2001 Annual Spring Offensive.

Yoshimi, J. & Onoda, T. (2001, March 5). Private institutions fight for survival. The Daily Yomiuri.

All materials on this site are copyright © by JALT and their respective authors.
For more information on JALT, visit the JALT National Website