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Universities no longer a protected species

Asahi Evening News

By KOICHI IITAKE

February 10, 2000

Japan's national universities are about to enter an era of fierce competition and even drastic streamlining. Some describe this period as the ``inevitable and last phase'' of the nation's administrative reforms.

Others say government reform plans should stay out of academic activities, while others argue that university employees will simply become victims of a plan to keep bureaucrats employed in Kasumigaseki.

Once praised as the intellectual base of the nation's economic miracle, the 99 state-run universities can no longer remain a calm ``ivory tower,'' where more than 2.7 trillion yen has been spent annually.

The Education Ministry, which has long served as their protector, is preparing to expose them to a more competitive environment by introducing an ``independent agency system'' to ensure efficient operations.

``The time is about to come when the market will weed out universities that have lost their reason for being,'' said Hiromitsu Ishi, president of Hitotsubashi University.

The university is one of the five prominent universities in Tokyo planning to form a consortium to prepare for the independent agency system. Under the plan, the consortium will provide attractive programs in general educational curriculum, student transfers and others.

Ishi said one aim of the consortium is to create a joint force of universities that could rival the University of Tokyo, the cream of the crop in the nation's academic circles.

``It is just as financial institutions have been forced to be reorganized and put to competition after decades of protection by the Finance Ministry,'' Ishi said.

Under the independent agency plan, national universities will be granted ``corporation status'' and allowed a freer hand in such areas as the hiring of professors, the setting of school fees and salaries for teachers.

But at the same time, the proposed system aims to create tougher competition in exchange for such freedom.

An assessment council will evaluate the quality of national universities in terms of academic and educational achievements. Institutions that earn higher marks would receive more government subsidies. Universities that fail to make the grade could be left to die.

The Education Ministry will work out details of the new system during fiscal 2000.

But a problem arises with the government's administrative reform plans. Critics say university employees would fall under the government's streamlining plan of reducing 25 percent of the number of bureaucrats by 2010, or about 140,000 officials, which was adopted last year to streamline and cut the red tape in central government ministries and agencies.

The state-run universities employ about 125,000 educational and administrative staff.

Among the opponents is Kei Nemoto, an associate professor of Burmese history at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. ``Studies that do not immediately contribute to society may be treated as a low priority (in government university subsidy programs) once they are exposed to competition from other areas under the new system,'' he said.

Saga University President Nobumichi Sako opposes the plan for a different reason.

``The ongoing moves could run against the repeatedly advocated policy of decentralization because universities have played key roles in the advancement of local communities,'' Sako said.

Although opposition to the plan is spreading nationwide, there are reasons for such changes, said Hitotsubashi University's Ishi and other promoters of the system.

For one thing, calls are intensifying for university reforms because of the declining birthrate. According to an Education Ministry projection under the current circumstances, all 18-year-olds will be able to enroll in university in 2009 if they are

not selective.

In addition, the nation's rapidly deteriorating fiscal status is requiring reduced budgets for national universities.

Some schools agree that reform plans are inevitable, and are preparing for the shift.

Yamanashi University and Yamanashi Medical University plan to set up a joint graduate school, with a view to merge.

``At a time when the entire society is carrying out drastic streamlining, it is quite natural for us to do the same,'' said Yamanashi University President Hiroyoshi Shiigai.

Former Education Minister Akito Arima said in a recent interview with Asahi Evening News that ``breaking away from traditional seclusion is the key objective of university reforms, including the independent agency plan.''

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Arima, then president of the University of Tokyo, hit upon the idea of inviting brilliant scientists from the communist nation to help push science education in Japan to greater heights.

At that time, the idea was rather unconventional by national university standards, where the century-old tradition of forming a ``closed family'' among a professor and other teaching staff was dominant.

Arima's plan was also opposed by the Foreign Ministry, which argued that the dispute over the Northern Territories must be resolved first, Arima said.

In fact, even at the University of Tokyo, there are only 11 non-Japanese professors. The other 1,360 professors are Japanese.

Out of such concern, Arima, as the nation's education minister, put forth the independent agency plan last year. He said that some of the 99 national universities may have to be streamlined as a result of healthy competition in such areas as recruiting competent professors, even from abroad.

In a separate interview, University of Tokyo President Shigehiko Hasumi agreed with Arima about the need for university reforms. But Hasumi opposed the independent agency system, which he said would only expose state-run universities to ``competition without philosophy.''

Hasumi also heads the Japan Association of National Universities, which has expressed opposition to the system.

The idea to reduce universities simply because of the declining number of students is absurd, Hasumi said.

``The number of universities may have to be increased to provide `lifelong education' at a time when society is rapidly aging,'' he said.

Hasumi also said ongoing reforms at his university have nothing to do with the independent agency plan.

In 1998, the University of Tokyo created the ``Graduate School of Frontier Sciences,'' staffed by professors of a wide range of specialties. Michikata Kono, an engineering professor who teaches there, said the program promotes academic and personnel exchanges between different courses.

Iwao Nakatani, who last year had no choice but to resign as a Hitotsubashi University professor of economics to accept a post as an outside director for Sony Corp., said the independent agency system would be insufficient if university teaching staff are not allowed to act more independently.

He said the insufficient competition at state-run universities is a reason why ``global venture companies, such as those found in the Silicon Valley in California, have not emerged Japan.''

Often forgotten in the debate are the students, who seem more interested in services than the system.

``I would believe that certain competition would make classes more attractive than now,'' said a 21-year-old student at Ochanomizu University, a state-run university in Tokyo. ``Currently, some professors just keep talking without communicating with students.''

Shunsuke Yamagishi, a professor of education at Tama University, questions whether the debates on university reforms are reliable.

``The debates have emerged only in reaction to the independent agency program, which itself is a highly political proposal that came as part of the government's administrative reform efforts,'' he said.




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