Concern as Japan links efficiency to subsidies

July 8, 2005

A year after the denationalisation of Japan's 89 former national universities, the Ministry of Education is assessing each one - and subsidies will be linked to the outcome.

The purpose of this assessment was to "examine whether tax funds have been effectively and suitably spent", the Ministry said. While staff recognise the improved efficiency that will result, they say that a lack of transparency in the system is causing tension and uncertainty.

"Universities will end up increasing corporate-sponsored research, giving low priority to the basic science research that has no immediate commercial application. And faculty members will end up teaching courses that are easy draws," said a professor at a former national university who asked not to be identified.

The policy has also created a "mountain of paperwork", according to some staff. "Our president said submitting reports to the Ministry must be given top priority," said a professor at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. "I don't want to give up teaching, so my research work is put on the back burner."

All former national universities face an annual 1 per cent cut in subsidies for an indefinite period. Faced with a possibility of further subsidy cuts, Tokyo has set a 50 billion (£255 million) endowment target.

The assessment system calls for universities to submit six-year plans related to their management, operation and teaching and research proposals, against which each institution will be evaluated at the end of the period.

"These heavily subsidised universities have enjoyed highly protected existence for decades, with some professors hardly publishing research papers and teaching a minimum number of hours.

"It's about time they faced reality," said a faculty member of Meiji University in Tokyo, one of more than 400 private universities in Japan.

Private universities are also assessed, every seven years, but their results will not be linked to the subsidies they receive.

Although the Ministry said the ultimate goal of evaluation was to ensure that Japanese universities were of the highest international standards, the emphasis -Jat least in the short term - appeared to be on improving efficiency in institutions.

"For national universities to become fully independent, they have to have sound management," said Junichiro Yasui, an official responsible for assessment at the Ministry.

He emphasised the importance of "strengthening their financial basis".

For this reason, corporate executives as well as academics would be among the assessors, who work under the direction of Ministry-appointed bodies, he said. But most academics point out that the criteria for assessment lack transparency.

"It's not clear to me what qualification the inspectors will have or what exactly they will be looking at," said the professor at a denationalised university. "Given the limited resources of the evaluation bodies, I doubt if they will be able to look at faculty members' activities, only an overview of each university."

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