Universities’ risky business

by Takamitsu Sawa

Effective April 1 — the start of the new academic year — I became president of Shiga University, a “national university corporation” near Lake Biwa in Japan’s Kansai region. It is a relatively small institute consisting only of the Faculty of Education and the Faculty of Economics.

I have served at a number of institutions of higher education during the past 44 years — two years at the Faculty of Economics of the University of Tokyo, 37 years at the Institute of Economic Research of Kyoto University and four years at the Graduate School of Policy Science of Ritsumeikan University.

It has been six years since national universities in Japan were made national university corporations. Until then, the head of a national university was a titular figure, whose duties could be fulfilled by telling his subordinates to pursue courses of action as they saw fit. Now that national universities have become corporate bodies, their presidents are responsible for administrative matters as the heads of boards of trustees.

For people like myself inclined to regard a university as an “ivory tower” for learning, it is uncomfortable to know that each university is evaluated by the amount of money it secures from outside sources.

Changing the status of national universities into corporate bodies was started in Britain by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, when such institutions were made “agencies.” Behind this move was a commonly held belief in market fundamentalism — that by exposing universities to free competition in the marketplace, the quality of their education and research would improve, (which means that the strong would become stronger and the weak would be weeded out.)

I had long been of the view that institutes of higher education should be insulated from the market economy because the act of exposing them to competition would not only secularize arts and sciences but also put branches of learning that are often said to have no practical values, such as philosophy and history, on the path to decay.

One of the prerequisites for efficient competition in the marketplace is guaranteeing equal opportunities to all. It is like requiring all the runners to toe the line at the start of a race. When the universities were given the status of corporate bodies, there were big disparities among them.

On the one hand are the University of Tokyo and other former Imperial universities that were privileged national universities in prewar Japan and that have large numbers of faculties, research facilities and professors.

On the other hand are those established after World War II, which have a limited number of faculties and teachers. It is clear from the outset that all universities are subject to “economies of scale” when competing for research funds.

By assuming the presidency of Shiga University, I liken myself to the president of a small company. Although our university is small, I have been kept quite busy, much like the president of a small enterprise. Any university can be said to be charged with two important missions: education and research.

In Japan, however, all institutions of higher education have come to be called upon to give top priority to education for the following reason: to distinguish national university corporations, public university corporations and private universities — all of which are subject to approval and supervision of the education ministry — from “independent administrative agencies,” which are approved and supervised by other ministries and agencies. The former need to provide something that the latter do not: education.

It is for this reason, I believe, that national university corporations, which are given the special function of educating students, are being spared the screening by the Government Revitalization Unit, which under the Democratic Party of Japan government is targeting government-funded organizations.

It should be noted, however, that under former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi there were strong opinions for privatizing all national universities. This was in line with the system in the United States, where universities are funded either by states and/or private sources, but not by the federal government.

In the U.S., it has been well established that those who teach at universities should be remunerated for the service of educating students. If professors succeed in collecting research funds from outside sources and these funds cover half of their wages, they can reduce their teaching burden by half. If the funds collected from the outside are enough to cover all of their wages, they could be spared all of the teaching burden.

This is based on the concept that since a university is an institution for learning, any research work is peripheral to the primary job performed by professors. Therefore, each professor is responsible for securing research money from the outside to finance his or her research projects. That’s why a university in the U.S. provides faculty members with little or no money for research.

Since the national universities were made corporate bodies, they have been receiving subsidies called “operation grants” from the education ministry. This amount is reduced 1 percent every year. Since all personnel and costs of materials must be covered by these subsidies, national universities are being forced to reduce the number of teaching staff. As a result, the number of students per professor is going up even though Japan already has the highest such ratio among the member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Those funds left in the hands of the ministry are allocated to university professors on a competitive basis through the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and the Japan Science and Technology Agency. Applications for such allocation are screened and funds are given to a small number of research projects at an annual rate of several hundred million yen per project. Most of the funds are given to postdoctorate researchers whose contracts are of limited duration. The beneficiaries are limited to large universities with a large number of teachers.

Shortly before the national universities became corporate bodies, I wrote in a newspaper, “The outcome of the new system is obvious: Only the University of Tokyo will be the winner.” Six years have passed since then, and everything seems to be going just as I predicted: The strong have become stronger and the weak have become weaker as a consequence of the new system.

I never dreamed I’d be named to head a weak national university corporation six years later. Now that this has become reality, I am determined to prove that even the weakest has a chance of winning. Being small is a disadvantage in one sense; at the same time, the advantages include the formation of consensus more easily and the expeditious implementation of drastic reforms.

As a person who has long worried about the consequences of turning national universities into corporate bodies, I feel it is my duty to push reform by taking advantage of heading a small institution.

Takamitsu Sawa is president of Shiga University, Japan.