Japan’s universities struggling under corporate status

by Takamitsu Sawa

This year marks the 15th year since Japanese national universities were changed into institutions with corporate status. Earlier, in 1988, the British government under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher converted national universities into “agencies,” similar to the corporate status Japan would adopt.

Under the Thatcher scheme, national universities continue to receive subsidies from the government for their operation but are required to expand their own funds, reduce spending and improve the efficiency of education and research, so that the fruits of educational and research programs will be maximized within budgetary restrictions.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who was a follower of market fundamentalism like Thatcher, fell into step and turned all Japanese national universities into agencies with corporate status.

Koizumi also accomplished his long-cherished dream of privatizing the nation’s three postal services — mail delivery, postal savings and postal insurance. Back in the latter half of the 1980s, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, who called for small government like Koizumi, privatized NTT Public Corp., Japan Salt and Tobacco Public Corp. and Japanese National Railways.

These privatization programs have had the positive impact of elevating the convenience and comfort of consumers in general, although the abolition of railway lines that were losing money inconvenienced people living along those lines.

But turning national universities into agencies with corporate status has done more harm than good, rather than the merits and demerits offsetting each other.

The national universities that have become university corporations have been transformed into something like national enterprises of the former Soviet Union. Each is now required to submit to the education ministry a six-year, medium-term target, and to work out the next fiscal year’s plan at the end of each fiscal year and submit it to the ministry as well.

University teachers have to devote an enormous amount of time filling out all this troublesome paperwork. This leads to reducing the time they can devote to their main task of conducting research. They have to spend additional time drawing up proposals for securing funds from outside sources to improve their university’s competitiveness.

Moreover, subsidies from the education ministry for the operation of national universities has continued to be reduced by 1 percent every year, forcing the universities to cut down on their clerical staff and hire more teachers on an irregular basis. These and other factors have increased the red tape burden on the full-time teaching staff.

Undeniably, all of these factors have left teachers at the national university corporations extremely busy. Although it may not be altogether attributable to the change in the status of national universities, there has been a noticeable decline in Japan’s international position in terms of the number of academic and scientific papers in all fields published in specialist journals.

Until 2003, Japan ranked second only to the United States in the number of such papers. But in 2004, it was surpassed by Germany and China. The number of papers written by Japanese scholars appearing in international journals has been falling since 2010. Japan fell in 2015 to the sixth place behind India and Britain. In stark contrast, China has achieved a rapid rise. It surpassed the U.S. in 2016 to rank first in the world.

Instead of achieving the goal of making education and research more efficient, the conversion of national universities into university corporations has increased inefficiency, contrary to expectations.

The decline of Japanese education and research is clearly evident in the World University Rankings made public by the Times Higher Education of Britain every autumn. In 2004, the University of Tokyo placed 12th globally but fell to 46th in 2017. Kyoto University managed to stay at 74th in 2017. But the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Osaka University and Tohoku University, which had placed between 100th and 200th a few years back, all disappeared from the top 200.

The principal cause of the low rankings of Japanese universities is that the number of citations from papers written by their teachers is small, indicating they don’t exert much influence in the international academic world.

It’s hard to deny that the decline of Japan’s position in the world’s academic and research fields can be attributable, at least in part, to the policy that converted national universities into university corporations. The annual 1 percent cut in education ministry subsidies has forced them to reduce personnel expenses, which in turn has left a majority of teachers at major national universities as irregularly employed instructors on limited terms with low pay, no bonuses and no fringe benefits.

The ministry originally aimed at converting incremental funds arising from the subsidy cuts into competitive funds and increasing efficiency through “selection and concentration” of research funds. The screening of large research projects in a public contest for government funding is normally conducted by eminent professors emeritus who in the past made outstanding achievements, mainly in the field of natural science.

Let me point out two problems with this process. First, although those screening the projects are well-versed in their specialties, they are not at all qualified to pass judgment on projects in other fields because academic and scientific research has become extremely fractionalized. Second, famous professors past the age of 60 are not necessarily up to date on the research frontier even in their own fields.

Distributing research funding through “selection and concentration” carries a risk. If a bad selection is made, it leads to a loss of everything. In the U.S., applications filed with the National Science Foundation for research funding are screened with the applicants’ names hidden by five to 10 top-ranking researchers in the field concerned. The aim is to minimize the risk of making a poor selection.

The number of Japanese students going to the U.S. for study is also on the decline. In 1997, 47,073 Japanese students crossed the Pacific to study at American universities. The number had plummeted to 18,780 by 2016. A closer look shows that the number of those going to the U.S. for postgraduate work has decreased dramatically while those going there for undergraduate study account for a bigger portion of the total. In 1999, 8,897 Japanese students went to the U.S. for postgraduate work, but the number plunged to a mere 2,590 in 2017. In the same year, 124,990 students from China went to the U.S. to undertake postgraduate study. The gap between Japan and China is stunning.

Why is the number of Japanese students studying at American graduate schools so small? The answer is that even if they obtain a doctorate in the U.S., they will have a very slim chance of landing jobs as lecturers or associate professors at Japanese national universities, which are facing a budgetary squeeze after becoming university corporations.

For a larger number of papers written by Japanese university teachers to be published in first-rate specialist journals, attract attention from their foreign peers and be frequently cited, it would certainly be advantageous, if not required, for them to experience a few years of research at American universities and institutes.

To sum up, the policy of changing national universities into university corporations has had the disastrous effect of weakening their international competitiveness, lowering their teachers’ research productivity and shriveling the motivation to study among students in general and postgraduate students in particular. I remember a British professor saying to me some time ago, “It is incredible that Japan will repeat the mistake Britain made.”

Takamitsu Sawa is a distinguished professor at Shiga University.