Japanese fear evaluation plan

十二月 1, 2000

Japan's political crisis is unlikely to affect reform of the country's national universities.

Consultations on semi-privatisation plans for the 99 national universities, which have no independent legal status, are proceeding uninterrupted.

The reform, due to be implemented in two years, involves changing the legal status of the universities and introducing an evaluation system for research, teaching and university management.

Fears among university leaders that evaluation would be tied to funding were confirmed last week by Masato Kitani, director of planning in the education ministry's higher education bureau.

He said: "The evaluations will be one of the most important sources of information for considering the distribution of funding. They will be seen as advice to the ministry."

The universities oppose tying funding to research assessments. While it would benefit large and famous national universities like Kyoto, it is, according to Kyoto's president, Makoto Nagao, seen as threatening by the majority of national universities.

The evaluations, on which the Higher Education Funding Council for England has been advising the ministry, are likely to avoid numerical scores but will make public clear statements of the findings.

The reports will therefore affect universities' ability to attract graduate students and research contracts from industry.

Resistance to changes in universities' management structures that would turn them into semi-independent agencies may also be disregarded by the ministry. Mr Kitani said last week that changes will be pushed through. "The ministry has made a decision that we have to make structural changes."

At present, deans of departments and presidents of Japanese national universities are elected by the faculty, though appointed by the ministry. National universities have no legal status and cannot enter into contracts. Research contracts are made with individual professors who then hire research staff and buy equipment. Changes giving more power to the central administration and involving outsiders in the appointment of presidents are seen to threaten the professors' academic freedom.

The reforms also have implications for students. Mr Kitani said that, "in principle, every university could set its own fees". At present, all students at national universities pay a standard fee of about $5,000 a year, with about 8 per cent of students qualifying for fee waivers. Fees are collected by the ministry.

Professor Nagao, who is a member of the committee advising the ministry on evaluation and who chairs the committee on structural change, thinks differential fees would be too unpopular to be politically realistic.

National universities would be able to mobilise their local Diet (parliament) members to block any changes they dislike.

But the ministry is unconvinced. "National universities do not have such strong influence on the Diet," Mr Kitani said. "The pressure of industry is stronger."

Industry is the driving force behind the reform. Faced with recession, companies are pressing for universities to undertake more of the applied research and professional education of graduates once undertaken by companies.

According to the ministry, the reform is designed to increase the autonomy of the universities and their ability to adapt to new demands to improve their linkages with industry and to give them stronger management powers.

"They are not competitive enough internationally in research or in attracting overseas students and Japan is losing its best graduates, especially to the United States," said Mr Kitani. Only 7 per cent of Japan's 2.5 million students are studying at graduate level.

The universities, however, believe the motivation is to slim central government numbers. The national universities, whose staff count as civil servants, are required to cut staff by 1 per cent a year.



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