Two years ago, the Japanese government introduced a policy reform aimed at improving the academic capacity, administrative efficiency, and social contributions of national universities. Funding schemes were tied to organizational restructuring, which involves closing departments with low enrolments. While the Japanese government intended to make national universities more administratively autonomous, it appears that institutions accepted this as another government directive which interferes with their internal decision-making.
The reform has clearly sent mixed messages, contributing to a political struggle between the government and universities.
National Universities and Institutional Autonomy
Japanese universities are loosely classified based on their funding sources: national universities are funded by the national government, prefectural and municipal universities are funded by the local governments, and private universities funded by private foundations.
Japan created the current national university system in the mid-20th century by reconstructing the so-called imperial universities from the pre-World War II era. Today there are 86 national universities throughout Japan. Their historical mandate is to provide access in an affordable and equal way throughout Japan. These universities have served the needs of particular student population and geographic areas since their establishment. In rural communities, they have trained health professionals and teachers, helping to meet the demand for such skilled workers.
Burton Clark defined the Japanese university system as a hybrid model: although faculty members at both the private and public universities enjoy professional autonomy and academic freedom, the national universities’ operation was centrally managed by the national government as they are part of the state.
In the last two decades, however, the national government initiated a series of reforms to allow national universities to be administratively autonomous. The 2004 incorporation of the national universities became the hallmark of the government policy to allow individual institutions to gain more control over their management.
There is a consistent policy trend to further restructure the Japanese national university system. The current reform assumed that the national universities need to have more effective and prompt decision-making regarding university operation in order to remain competitive globally and financially less dependent of public funding. Under their existing organizational structure, national universities continue to have administrative ties to Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT).
A contradictory message
The current reform directed the national universities to streamline their institutional orientations to three different geographical types (local/regional, national, and international) and scholarly types (research-focused, teaching-focused, and social contribution-focus). Some national universities proposed to adopt institutional orientations toward the local/social/ service type.
In my professional experience both as a faculty member and administrative officer in Japan, I could directly observe this ambiguous status of national universities. My faculty colleagues in two different universities were free when it came to their research and teaching, but administrative decision-making was often constrained by the Vice Presidents of Operations – who are career civil servants seconded from MEXT. This individual dictates structural, budgetary, and staff HR matters. I still remember my colleague’s frustration about the lack of power over operational decision-making, and the abuse of power of the MEXT civil servants.
This power struggle between MEXT and the national universities persists even after the 2004 incorporation. The question remains: how could the autonomy be guaranteed when the government maintains control over and interferes with the administrative matters of the universities?
What are the consequences of the current reform?
What would operational autonomy look like? “Obtaining funding and providing employment to former bureaucrats must not be the raisons d’être of universities” argued Professor Matsuura, a critic of the reform. The current reform will only bring superficial changes unless MEXT allows Japanese universities to earn their independence by defining it for themselves.
Government policy for the higher education sector must reflect the reality of individual universities instead of the assumptions of the national government based on the politics of Tokyo. In my view, MEXT officers often propose policies reactively without a strategy or a vision. I wish MEXT at least were able to explain the reasoning behind their policy decisions.
The 14 national universities that are willing to accept the scheme have proposed establishing new departments by closing or restructuring existing departments with low enrolment records. I agree with these changes as the national universities increasingly experience resource shortages and a decline in the student population. However, since national universities remain to gain full administrative autonomy, they do not seem to be leading their own restructuring efforts.
More importantly, policy decisions should be based on sound evidence, which is currently lacking in both MEXT and at the national universities. Evidence-based decision-making requires the capacity to gather and analyze data for institutional purposes, which national universities currently do not have. If they are to become more independent, building such capacity will be critical.