Japan's national universities are to be converted into independent agencies, education minister Akito Arima has announced.
The minister's plan is intended to give the 99 universities greater autonomy while reducing the number of government employees.
The minister's surprise announcement was prompted by criticism that the universities were unfairly escaping controversial schemes to trim the government bureaucracy. The government wants to reduce the number of public employees by 25 per cent by 2010.
Cuts in the number of civil servants dealing with higher education are expected to create more funds for universities. The change is also intended to encourage universities to make more efficient use of funds.
Fund providers and managers at the ministry of education have frequently been criticised for being too far removed from individual universities to ensure that funds are deployed efficiently.
"The independence and initiative of national universities will be enhanced to give them greater freedom in the areas of organisation, staff assignments and budgets," Mr Arima told university presidents at a meeting in Tokyo.
But critics argue that the independent agency plan will threaten academic standards and lead to higher tuition fees. Some university officials and academics fear that, in the long term, as indepen-
dent agencies they would receive less money from the government and be forced to devote more of their time to generating profits.
Another concern is that as agencies they will be subject to more public pressure than existing institutions and that this will affect policy decisions. In research, they say, this could result in more funds being channelled into short-term applied research projects at the expense of long-term basic research.
Mr Arima has tried to placate critics by giving the independent agencies more responsibility for selecting the third-party organisations that are required to help evaluate universities' performance.