Living with national universities

by Takamitsu Sawa

In fiscal 2004, the state-run national universities in Japan were given the status of “corporations.” The initial six-year “medium term” after this shift to “national university corporations” ended in fiscal 2009. The current fiscal year is the second year of the second medium term.

From the outset, I opposed the “corporatization” of national universities. Indeed, on April 23, 2003, I pointed out a number of difficulties with such a scheme when I testified before the Education and Science Committee of the Lower House.

I believe what I predicted at that time — the consequences of corporatization — has been borne out by events that have happened over the past seven years, although some readers may think I am simply blowing my own horn.

My answer is “no” if asked whether Japan’s international competitiveness in science and technology has been strengthened as a result of creating corporations out of the national universities. On the contrary, this country is being caught or even being passed by countries like South Korea and China.

Nor would I agree with the assertion that the quality of education has been visibly improved. Although the number of students from abroad studying in Japan has increased, I see no qualitative improvement.

Teachers at national university corporations now spend much of their precious time drawing up medium-term targets and plans, preparing progress reports and annual programs and writing explanations about research projects in order to win research funding in competition with other schools. As a result, they find it extremely hard to concentrate on their own research.

Moreover, there have been a series of reports by whistle-blowers about embezzlement of research funds by well-known professors at highly reputed universities after they’d been granted research budgets in the hundreds of millions of yen — a phenomenon least befitting to “a sanctuary of learning.”

Even without such scandals, a research budget totaling several hundreds of millions of yen is simply too big. Such a large amount of money may be needed at the initial stage of a research project if expensive experimental equipment has to be installed. In my opinion, once the equipment has been installed and the project has started rolling, no more than ¥50 million a year should be allocated toward the costs of expendables, salaries and travel expenses.

But the course of action adopted by the government has been to pour several hundred million yen a year into each of a limited number of projects for five years, on the principle of “selecting and concentrating (investment) on a small number of projects.”

For some time, I have been proposing that if there is a budget of ¥3 billion per year, it would be far more desirable to allocate it to 30 projects at ¥100 million each than to support six projects at ¥500 million each.

If the budget is to be shared by a larger number of projects — such as 30 in this case — a review of each project must be conducted at the end of the second year if each is a five-year project. The budget would be discontinued for those projects unlikely to bear fruit and additional funds given to more promising projects.

Since multiple-year projects in general have uncertain factors that humans cannot foresee, it is far more desirable from the viewpoint of cost-effectiveness to let a larger number of projects get started simultaneously than to limit the budget only to a small number of projects.

Ordinary income for a national university corporation consists of operational subsidies granted by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, plus its own income from entrance examination fees, admission fees, tuition, and revenues from hospitals. As extra income, it receives scientific research funds from the ministry, remunerations for research projects commissioned by other government ministries and private enterprises, and contributions from business entities.

Expenditures are divided between personnel and nonpersonnel costs.

Most of the national university corporations are in the black, primarily because they have taken thoroughgoing measures to curtail personnel expenses.

For example, when a full-time professor reaches retirement age, a “special duty” teacher who teaches for just three to five years is hired. His or her salary is about two-thirds of the salary paid to his or her predecessor. And no bonus is given.

By the time the initial six-year medium term came to an end, most of the surplus money accumulated had already been invested in hakomono (boxlike objects) — buildings and halls.

Because operational subsidies from the education ministry have been reduced at the rate of 1 percent per year, most universities have sought to reduce personnel expenses to cope with the situation. Thus the quality of their education and research programs has inevitably suffered — unforgivable for an institution of higher education.

The protracted recession, rising unemployment and other unfavorable economic factors in recent years have prompted a growing number of high school students to apply to universities within their localities rather than to big-name universities in large cities. In other words, Japanese national university corporations have become similar to state universities in the United States.

In view of this tendency, the government should endeavor to strengthen national universities located away from metropolitan areas as a way of providing broader opportunities for young men and women in the countryside.

There are a large number of cases of prominent American scholars who first received their undergraduate education at state universities and then pursued postgraduate work at famous private universities with scholarships before moving to a brilliant career.

Not only for the promotion of science and technology but also for a new economic growth strategy in Japan, it is tantamount that all youths at least 18 be provided with equal opportunities to get a higher education at a national university corporation in their area, where admission fees and tuitions are relatively inexpensive compared with private universities.

For all these reasons, I have no choice except to conclude that the introduction of the national university corporation system has been a failure. But we cannot turn back the clock.

I have long argued that because of a serious disparity between large universities and small ones at the outset, and because of the unfair competition between them that necessarily follows, the corporation scheme would bring about a situation in which small universities fall prey to the larger ones.

Now, having been appointed president of Shiga University, a typical, small national university near Lake Biwa and having publicly stated the advantages as well as the disadvantages of a small university, I have been trying to make Shiga University both attractive and vigorous. After having taught at a big national university for 37 years and spending another 13 years as head of an economic research institute, I have learned how difficult it is to implement reform at a large university.

One of the advantages of being small is that reform can be carried out easily.

I call upon officials of Japan’s education ministry to bear in mind that the best means of improving the quality of higher education lies in following in the footsteps of Finland: Elevate the standards of primary and secondary education to the highest in the world, and don’t concentrate investments on a select few institutions and projects.

Takamitsu Sawa is president of Shiga University, Japan.