A rock lands in still waters

July 28, 2000

The threat of cuts and even institution closures is stirring the sleepy, safe world of Japanese academia. Charles Jannuzi and Bern Mulvey report

In sharp contrast with Japan's image as a nation known for a frenetic commitment to business, modernisation and development, most of its national universities have seemed like relatively sleepy oases of academic tranquillity. But not any more. Suddenly, these universities find themselves at a historic crossroads, one that has brought them under heavy public scrutiny for the first time.

Beginning perhaps as early as April 2001, national universities will be granted their administrative "independence" - that is, they will finally be released from the direct jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education (Monbusho), gaining unprecedented local autonomy in myriad aspects such as determining curriculum and deciding areas of student and faculty specialisation.

Paradoxically, this new-found "freedom" will be circumscribed by new limits and restraints. The proposed changes would, in effect, end the privileged status of these institutions, making them accountable to the authority of appointed regional overseers with broad powers the national government never had. This includes the ability to cut funding and staff based on measurements such as faculty performance and numbers enrolled. Tenure, rather than being based on civil service status, would become competitive, linked to merit and performance.

Possible funding and staff reductions have faculty at national universities across the country murmuring the once unthinkable: confrontational labour action, even a strike. (As civil servants, the faculty are permitted collective representation, but actions such as strikes are illegal.) The crux of the matter is their feeling of betrayal. The exclusive ties that bind the schools to the national government date as far back as the early Meiji era, more than 120 years ago. In the post-war period, since the school education law of 1947, faculty in the national system of tertiary education have laboured as loyal public servants under a Byzantine array of rules, regulations and guidelines covering in great detail everything from syllabus content to office furniture procurement.

This ponderous bureaucracy, many argue, has strangled creativity and originality in instruction and research. In return, however, universities and faculty have received a level of financial and professional security exceeding even that of the merit-based tenure offered by the most generous western university. Dismissal of full-time faculty, if the person is a Japanese national, is nothing short of impossible unless justified by criminal conviction. Promotion based on seniority, often with little regard to scholarly achievement, is all but guaranteed, and the retirement benefits are among the best in the world.

Rapidly mounting public debt (brought on by a decade of failed attempts to boost the economy) in combination with inescapable demographic changes resulting from the low birth rate are the main reasons behind Monbusho's latest proposals. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Japan's high school graduate population of 2 million in 1992 now stands at 1.5 million and is predicted to drop to 1.2 million by 2010.

With this in mind, an official at the ministry has said that it would be likely and perhaps even desirable for the number of four-year universities in Japan to drop from more than 600 to 300. This could include any of the 98 national universities should they prove unsuccessful at curbing costs or maintaining enrolments under the new system. Given the problems of public debt and demographic decline, a cut of up to 30 per cent in the total number of full-time faculty at national universities has been proposed.

National universities, despite matriculating less than a quarter of all the 2.7 million students at the four-year tertiary level, receive the overwhelming majority of public funds, pegged at some Y1.5 trillion (Pounds 9. billion) annually. This has made the national university system one of the biggest targets in this new move towards frugality in government. Also, the more numerous private universities, which educate far more students but at a much higher cost in tuition and fees, are clamouring for a fair share of public funds.

Faced with a possible loss of their protections and privileges, faculty and administrators have joined together in an increasingly organised, countrywide movement, the goals, strategies and actions of which have moved beyond raising public awareness of the issues towards open confrontation. Tactics so far have included public rallies and an aggressive advertising campaign with an international flavour, placing an advertisement in The New York Times, among other prominent publications.

Some younger professors - those with perhaps the most to lose because they have no hope of an early retirement - even advocate mass work stoppages, harking back to the anything but harmonious labour movements of the 1950s and reminiscent of the often confrontational relations between the government and teachers in public primary and secondary schools.

Monbusho's response to such activist concern? Spurred on by dire finances and committed to streamlining government, it has drastically moved up its proposed starting date for administrative separation from April 2003 to the same month next year. Will the ministry and the schools be able to reach a compromise? The answer may come this autumn, after a long, hot summer of brooding discontent.

Charles Jannuzi and Bern Mulvey are professors of English as a foreign language at Fukui University, Japan.

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