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
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
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
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
``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
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
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
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
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,''
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,''