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The academic year that begins Thursday will mark a new era for national universities, which will be cut loose from the fetters of the education ministry and gain independent administrative institution status.

The move, part of government streamlining efforts, is viewed as the most significant change to Japan’s higher education system in more than a century.

One who welcomes the development is Hitotsubashi University President Hiromitsu Ishi, who believes it will give his institution a chance to become more competitive.

“We had not made many efforts to upgrade the quality of education because it was considered unthinkable that (a national university) could collapse,” he said. “(The status change) has made faculty members take improvements of their academic programs and research more seriously.”

Until now, Japan’s 89 four-year universities and junior colleges have been part of the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry. Their approximately 123,000 professors and other staff have been classed as ministry officials.

The ministry strictly regulated the academic activities of the institutions and professors’ involvement in outside projects.

As independent administrative institutions, the schools will gain greater autonomy. They will, for instance, be able to use government subsidies as they wish and introduce new salary systems — including performance-based pay — for professors.

Private-sector management style will also be introduced. Each university will have a board of directors, a management council and an education council. This will allow management, led by the university president, to make policy decisions more swiftly than through the current process, in which matters are discussed at professor councils.

The need for rapid decision-making will increase when contentious proposals are submitted, according to Ishi. These include securing outside funding sources, establishing new departments or reducing teaching positions.

“We used to take six months to a year to decide on policies,” he said. “If this were to continue, we would be left far behind in this age of global competition.”

But with freedom comes responsibility.

The institutions must submit six-year action plans to the education ministry, outlining their academic goals. A government evaluation committee will assess the universities every six years to see whether they have met these goals.

The amount of government subsidies they receive will be based on the evaluations.

Because the Finance and education ministries have agreed to trim the total budget for education and research outlays and general operational costs for national universities by 1 percent every year, beginning in fiscal 2005, the institutions will also be competing for an ever-shrinking budget pie.

Private universities, for their part, want equal footing with their public rivals, saying national institutions should become more financially independent if the government is to have less of a say in their operations.

While 57 percent of national universities’ running expenses came from the government in 2002, the corresponding figure for private universities stood at 12 percent, according to education ministry figures.

National universities need to explain why they should be supported with taxpayer money, argued Keio University President Yuichiro Anzai, who serves as chairman of the Japan Association of Private Colleges and Universities.

“It is necessary to make national universities independent bodies in order to upgrade higher education in Japan,” he said. “But their roles should be limited to specific areas that private institutions cannot cover because of management reasons.”

Ishi pointed out that national universities promote basic research and provide higher education in rural areas — both of which are unattractive areas for private institutions. He admitted, however, that they will need to make a more visible contribution to society if they are to continue receiving government funding.

“There is a growing sense of crisis at (national) universities that they need to upgrade their academic levels, which is something we didn’t feel before,” he said. “This may be the greatest blessing brought about by the change.”

In this brave new world, Hitotsubashi, which is best known for its business and administration prowess, plans to focus on international research projects and joint ventures with the private sector.

It will open its first overseas liaison office in Beijing in June to promote research with Chinese universities and serve as a bridge between businesses, Ishi said, and there are hopes for an outpost in Bangkok.

He added that independent administrative institution status will help raise the profile of universities that have specific strengths or have been contributing to the local community.

In this regard, he cited Tottori University, which has won acclaim for its bird flu studies, and Obihiro University of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine in Hokkaido, which is noted for its research on mad cow disease.

If the new system works well, Ishi predicted, the intense competition could shatter the current hierarchy, in which the University of Tokyo stands at the pinnacle, followed by Kyoto University.

“People have been judging universities based on how difficult their entrance exams are, but this may change so that schools are ranked depending on what students gain” by attending them, he said.

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