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The Education Ministry on Friday announced its final decision to turn Japan’s 99 national universities into independent administrative institutions, a move that will streamline the management of colleges and give them greater autonomy in budget and personnel matters.

The ministry will create a panel to discuss details of the plan as early as next month, and map out specific procedures by the end of next year, ministry officials said.

At Friday’s meeting of heads of national universities held in Tokyo, Education Minister Hirofumi Nakasone said the new system will benefit universities because they will be able to flexibly carry over part of the annual budget to the following fiscal year, and use it freely without specifying what it is spent for.

Universities will also have more freedom in setting up new courses and faculties and decide on personnel without getting an approval from the ministry, Nakasone said.

“Increased autonomy and independence will help diversify universities . . . which will foster overall education and research in our country,” Nakasone said.

Friday’s announcement is confirmation of the ministry’s stance described last September, when it said it is “appropriate” to turn national universities into independent institutions, a shift from its long opposition to the idea.

Converting universities into independent institutions is part of the administrative reform plan that cleared the Diet last year. It aims to cut the number of central government employees by 25 percent by fiscal 2010.

Under the plan, 89 governmental organizations, such as national hospitals and museums, are already set to be turned into independent institutions in April 2001. These institutions will still be run by funds from the central government, but they are urged to improve efficiency and face the risk of closure if they do not achieve midterm goals set by ministers in charge.

National universities, especially small ones, have voiced strong opposition to the idea, saying the budget for research projects that do not produce short-term results may be cut, and that some universities might even be forced to close down.

Some national universities have already unveiled plans to merge or form an alliance in a bid to survive under the new system.

The Japan Association of National Universities has been calling for the creation of a special law that sets various conditions if the universities are converted into independent institutions.

Nakasone said Friday that the ministry will consider drawing up a special law, which might include such clauses as guaranteeing university employees civil servant status and granting universities the autonomy to set their own medium-term management goals.

Shigehiko Hasumi, head of the JANU and president of the University of Tokyo, told a press conference after the meeting that he gives the minister’s remarks “a certain degree of support.”

“For the first time, the Education Minister has referred to the necessity of creating a special law that we have been seeking,” Hasumi said.

Earlier this month, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party announced a package of policies, including the creation of such a law to apply the new system to universities.

In addition to the special law, Nakasone said efficiency of university research and management will be objectively evaluated by a third-party organization, for which an appropriate budget will be allocated. Efficiency will not be measured simply by supply and demand like at private corporations, he said.