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Greatest hopes work for less

by Takamitsu Sawa

Some time ago, I had a chance to chat with the chairman of a securities company who sat next to me at a conference, and one of the subjects we discussed was how much university instructors are being paid.

I said to him: “As you know, the pay scales of professors at national universities are determined under the seniority-based wage system. How much do you think they get in monthly salaries just before they reach retirement age?”

He started mumbling, “Well, one million and …”

To which I replied: “No, sir. The upper limit of a national university professor’s monthly pay as determined by the salary schedule is ¥550,000.” He appeared stunned and did not say a word.

This episode shows a deep misunderstanding prevailing in society in general about the remuneration for university instructors and the way they live. I would imagine many would wonder why the seniority-based wage system is applied to those who devote themselves to education and research in the first place.

Moreover, there is no difference whatsoever in the pay scale between professors capable of attracting a large number of students to fill the classroom and those whose lectures are so boring that vacant seats far outnumber the students in attendance. The value of research projects conducted by professors is not reflected in their remuneration. This means that even if one comes up with epoch-making results from his or her research that gain him or her global reputation, the salary will simply not go up proportionately.

Despite all this, every time a university advertises for teaching posts, it receives dozens of applications for each position that is available. Even in the case of contract instructors whose terms are limited to five years with an annual remuneration of ¥3 million to ¥4 million, the applications easily exceed 10 times the number of instructors sought. So, it is only natural that when a university looks for full-time instructors or associate professors, there are scores of applicants for each opening.

Since the 1991 academic year, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology has been reforming the higher education system by placing greater emphasis on postgraduate studies, resulting in an increase in the number of students continuing their academic pursuits after getting an undergraduate degree. This has led to an expansion in the number of people who are qualified to teach at universities.

As a result, there has emerged a large number of holders of doctoral degrees who cannot find jobs as full-time university instructors. It is no wonder that so many have jumped at help-wanted ads for contract instructors with limited terms paying a mere ¥3 million annually.

The root of this chaos lay in the unfounded assumption of the education ministry at the time that emphasis should be shifted to postgraduate curricula and that the private sector would hire large numbers of graduates with doctoral degrees. Such optimism disappeared fast, however, as virtually all business corporations have shied away from hiring doctorate holders because of the peculiar way in which students are educated at postgraduate schools in Japan.

At the undergraduate level, Japanese students generally receive highly advanced and specialized education, limiting the postgraduate curricula to even more narrowly defined fields. Upon being admitted to a graduate school, a student must come under the guidance of a single instructor, forcing the student willy-nilly to concentrate in the narrow field that happens to be the specialty of the instructor.

The student must write a dissertation for a master’s degree on a subject of interest to the instructor. Choosing a different subject would only result in the instructor dismissing the student, possibly with an excuse like “I cannot give you proper guidance on the subject.”

In short, the doctoral curricula at Japanese universities are so narrowly specialized that private businesses are not interested in hiring doctorate holders. As long as this oversupply of potential university instructors continues, it may be only natural from the market point of view that the wage levels of university instructors remain low.

What I have written so far is related only to national universities, all of which have independent national corporation status. Teachers at major private universities receive wages that are 10 to 20 percent higher than that of their counterparts at national universities. I have even been told — though I find it difficult to believe — that some private universities pay their teachers annual bonuses equivalent to seven months’ salary.

If the disparity is left untouched, there will be an endless outflow of experienced professors from national universities to private ones before they reach retirement age. Moreover, a large number of highly talented young academics will be inclined increasingly to seek careers at private universities or to leave the country, lured by high-paying job offers from foreign universities.

Should the low wage levels of national university teachers become common knowledge, I fear that there will inevitably be a sharp decline in the number of excellent students seeking teaching careers at national universities. They will know that even if they advance to graduate schools, obtain a doctorate and are lucky enough to land a job as a postdoctoral researcher with a limited term, they will not have a bright future. They will think twice about pursuing doctoral curricula if they know that even if they win a full-time instructorship at a national university, their income will be much lower than that of employees of large corporations or the central government.

There is not much difference between the salary schedules of central government administrative staff and those of teachers at national university corporations. But, in fact, there is a big gap in their income.

That’s because when they are young, civil servants for the central government are paid for overtime while university instructors receive nothing extra even if they work all night. When a national civil servant is promoted to a managerial post at around 40, he or she will be given a managerial position allowance equivalent to 25 percent of basic pay.

In higher posts like departmental head, councilor or bureau director general, annual income reaches a minimum of ¥15 million.

This is a far cry from the situation for national university teachers. Only one of every 50 such teachers gets a managerial position allowance. These are the factors that make remuneration for national university teachers lag far behind those of central government employees.

Why is it that the government, which says science and technology must be the basic foundation of the nation, gives such cold treatment to national university professors on whose shoulders the nation’s scientific and technological excellence depends?

It has been said that preparations are now under way to divide independent administrative corporations into ordinary administrative corporations and “research corporations.” For the sake of enhancing the nation’s science and technology, I call upon the education ministry to work closely with the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications to drastically revise the pay scales for those engaged in research and education at national universities and research corporations.

Takamitsu Sawa is president of Shiga University, Japan.