A new managerial cost-cutting culture is coming to Japan's universities, write Bern Mulvey and Charles Jannuzi.
In a long-anticipated move, the Japanese government has decided in principle to grant its 98 national universities their "independence" - to release them from their exclusive ties to the national government and the ministry of education. The first steps, including new laws to limit the public-servant privileges enjoyed by national university employees, are already being taken.
The benefits of this drive to force national universities into independence are supposed to include saving the debt-ridden government money, launching the universities into local autonomy with strict fiscal accountability, enlivening teaching through better evaluation of teacher performance and curriculum development, and, through competitive tenure, making the institutions more internationally competitive in scientific and technological research.
It seems quite likely that the reforms will be vigorously implemented under the current government. Indeed, the present prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, has achieved sudden, widespread popularity by appearing as the reform-minded maverick in the traditionally conservative Liberal Democratic Party. Since polls have consistently indicated low public support for maintaining the national university system, it is a safe target for the opportunistic Mr Koizumi.
Significantly, his choice for the post of education minister, Atsuko Toyama, is a loyal career bureaucrat with no obvious ties to any of the ruling party's rival factions. Although she is a graduate of the nation's number one national university - Tokyo - she is known to support the reforms.
Questions regarding the nature of the changes - not to mention their method of implementation - remain. Among reformers, there were those who wanted to impose strict fiscal regimes on the universities while at the same time granting and developing local autonomy over all other matters.
To do this, it was proposed that there should be some sort of regional board of overseers to act as an intermediary between the interests of the government, the former national universities and the regional communities they are supposed to serve.
It was, however, unclear who would constitute and run these boards. It was also unexplained just how these boards could fiscally control former national universities while benevolently overseeing local autonomy in matters such as programme management or the conduct of teaching and research.
The government's plan is to bring modern business models to the management of the universities. A head manager - a political appointment that will be made at cabinet level - will administer each university.
Furthermore, the regional boards of overseers will be established, in effect, as advisory groups to the government and will be given the Orwellian title of hyouka i-in kai or standards committees. They will be responsible for evaluating both the performance of university managers and the faculty those managers oversee.
It is these latest developments that are most troubling for the teachers at national universities. The head managers, who are supposed to come from science and/or business backgrounds, will be charged with ensuring a "results-oriented efficiency" at the schools under their management.
Results-oriented efficiency is an ominous term, hinting that the government has not resolved the paradox of wanting tight fiscal control while at the same time launching and fostering something other than contrived local autonomy.
It also seems almost inevitable that non-conformance to this results-oriented efficiency could be used to justify cutting funds to universities, the cancellation of programmes and fields of study, and - as a result - personnel.
Both the head managers and the standards committees that advise them will be expected to ensure improvements in productivity from the faculty. In that connection, work performance will be periodically assessed based on the results of student evaluations, the quantity and prestige of papers published, and a third, vaguely defined category loosely translating as "community service requirements".
This may well leave teachers in certain fields at the national universities harried and on ever-shakier ground in trying to work out a career. For example, one reason why there are a large number of jobs teaching English as a foreign language at universities is that English is a required subject, both in programmes where it might be expected and in general education curricula. In any evaluation scheme based on students' perceptions, teachers may be put in a difficult position, to say the least, since people taking courses only because they are required can prove to be difficult consumers.
University head managers and standards committee members with little or no expertise in, or understanding of foreign language teaching could use student evaluations of programmes, courses and individual teachers to undercut further the already low status of the thousands of foreign nationals teaching English and other languages.
Can universities and their programmes be effectively managed and evaluated along business principles? Whose principles, expertise and interests are most applicable in such a process? Throughout Japan, national university administrators, faculty and staff are grappling with such issues as they prepare for the latest wave of reforms from the Japanese government.
Bern Mulvey and Charles Jannuzi are professors of English as a foreign language at Fukui University, Japan.