It is no exaggeration to say that Japan’s national universities are being forced to implement unprecedented reforms. It is the government — the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, in particular — that is forcing such reforms on them. There are three reasons for this:

(1) There are too many national universities in Japan. They number 86 now. On top of that, there are 90 universities run by prefectural or municipal governments and 606 private ones.

Japan’s percentage of high school graduates advancing to study at universities is among the lowest among the industrialized countries, and has been on the decline in recent years. In fiscal 2013 (April 2013 through March 2014), only 49.9 percent of those finishing secondary education went on to university, not counting junior colleges.

The corresponding average for the 34 OECD member nations is 62 percent, while in Australia, Iceland and Portugal, more than 90 percent of high school graduates go to university.

In the three Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden and Finland), the United States, South Korea, the Netherlands and Denmark, the corresponding figure ranges between more than 65 percent and close to 80 percent. The figure for Britain stands at 63 percent, about the same as the OECD average.

In Italy, France and Germany, between 40 percent and 50 percent of high school graduates advance to university — lower than Japan’s figure. That’s because, in those countries, many students choose to go to vocational schools after high school. Universities in these countries place primary emphasis on nurturing intellectuals and put vocational teaching on the back burner.

(2) Japan’s private universities are in financial straits. Because of the low percentage of high school graduates wishing to study at universities, about 40 percent of the nation’s private universities have been unable to fill their respective quotas for enrolled students.

In fiscal 2013, freshmen at Japan’s private universities accounted for 79 percent of all freshmen nationwide; those at national universities, only 16 percent.

Since 79 percent of the government’s budget for higher education goes to national universities, it stands to reason that private universities feel victimized by what they see as an unfair distribution of government education funds.

This has given rise to a call from the private university sector that student quotas at national universities be reduced to a necessary minimum and that the resulting surplus budget be used to subsidize private universities.

(3) There are demands to elevate university education standards as part of the economic growth strategy being pursued by the Abe administration.

Although many members of the Industrial Competitiveness Council of the government are from the business sector, they forget their own responsibility for Japan’s economic success as business managers. Instead, they blame the lowering of Japanese universities’ global competitiveness as the main culprit in the sluggish Japanese economy.

In fact, the 2013 World University Rankings of the Times Higher Education showed that only five Japanese universities ranked among the world’s top 200 — University of Tokyo (23rd), Kyoto University (52nd), Tokyo Institute of Technology (125th), Osaka University (144th) and Tohoku University (150th). This has led to including in the growth strategy the goal of having 10 Japanese universities rank among the world’s top 100 by 2020. To me, this goal seems virtually unattainable.

The government does not seem particularly concerned with the plateauing percentage of high school graduates entering university. Yet, a call from private universities to shift more duties and responsibility to the private sector concurs well with the government’s aims of smaller government.

On this basis, the education ministry has instructed all national universities to “redefine the mission” of each of their departments by filing reports on their respective “strength” and “uniqueness.”

So, the national universities are now obliged to demonstrate “strength” and “uniqueness” that private universities cannot emulate in order to justify the government’s virtual management of them through injections of taxpayer money. Special measures must be taken to elevate their international competitiveness. The prime target of criticism here is the cardinal rule that each university department exercise autonomy.

The legal basis of this self-governance is Article 93 of the School Education Law, which stipulates that a university must have a faculty council composed of teachers — usually established in each department — to deliberate over important matters. Although the meaning of “important matters” is quite vague, the presumably most important example is personnel affairs related to teachers in a department.

Indeed, selection of a person to replace a teacher who has retired or moved to another university is left entirely to a departmental faculty council. Although the decision is ultimately subject to approval by the university president, the president in fact simply rubber-stamps decisions made by a faculty council to complete the procedure.

But a bill to revise the School Education Law has been submitted to the Diet. It would change Article 93 to read that a faculty council will express opinions to the university president to help him or her make decisions on matters such as the admission and graduation of students, the granting of academic degrees, and other matters that are important for education and research and about which the president recognizes the need to hear opinions of the faculty council.

In short, all decision-making power related to research and education would be concentrated in the hands of the university president. The departmental faculty council’s role would be downgraded to that of an advisory body. The president would have the sole prerogative in hiring and promoting teachers and in appointing department heads. A faculty council could not do anything other than express opinions on these matters.

As one with four years of experience at American universities, I believe that such a concentration of power in the university president would be unparalleled anywhere else in the world.

Since the national universities were turned into independent administrative entities in fiscal 2004, each national university is required to submit medium-term targets and plans to the education ministry. The ministry’s operating grants to each university for the next medium term is increased or reduced depending on the extent to which such targets and plans have been accomplished.

In a session of the Lower House Education and Science Committee, I had testified that such a scheme would amount to “Sovietizing” the universities.

Members of the Industrial Competitiveness Council and another governmental panel for resuscitation of education appear to be trying to reform the governance of universities after the fashion of business corporations.

It would do no good and a lot of harm if they make universities, which are dedicated to education and research in widely diversified fields, follow the same managerial principles pursued by business enterprises.

Takamitsu Sawa is president of Shiga University, Japan.

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