Can the Incorporation of National Universities Trigger University Reform?

Faculty Fellow, RIETI

The countdown has begun for the April 1 incorporation of national universities.
Following the establishment of the National University Corporation Law last year, a new body will emerge within the Japanese university system - the "incorporated national university" - that will take the place of the central government in setting up universities, which up to now have been classified as national, municipal or private universities depending on the body that established them. "National universities" that have educational and research functions will be set up and operated by these corporate national universities, but in essence, existing departments and affiliate research institutions will continue to handle the practical business affairs related to education and research. The major difference is that the university's headquarters will be transferred to a corporate organization comprising a board of directors, a management council and an education and research council. At the same time, incorporation will affect various elements of national universities, such as the stripping of national civil servant status from staff and the endowment of operational grants.

How will national universities deal with the Big Bang induced by MEXT?

For national universities, the parties concerned in this matter, work toward incorporation is proceeding simultaneously on various fronts. National universities have overcome many waves of change in the past, and this is no different in the sense that the reforms are exogenous. However, the magnitude of the latest reforms is incomparable and easily beyond the scope that can be dealt with by simply having management and operational structures passively meet the requirements of the National University Corporation Law. I recall that after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was heated debate as to which approach was more appropriate for the economic reforms of the Eastern bloc nations - the "Big Bang" or "gradualism." In the case of the Big Bang induced by MEXT, all the cards are not yet on the table regarding which approach the universities themselves will take. It is not easy to determine the direction in which matters will proceed given such an uncertain environment. In this column, I would like to present clues that should serve as keys to comprehending this.

The drafts of the midterm goals submitted by the universities to MEXT on Sept. 30, 2003, can be seen as the first key. These drafts have in their preambles the "basic goals of the university," while in their main text are "measures to improve the quality of education and research," "measures to improve administration of operations and efficiency," "measures to improve finances," "measures regarding self-evaluation and accountability to society" and "measures for other important operational objectives" to be tackled over six years. With a view to probing approaches taken by national universities, we should focus attention on the "basic goals of the university," which serve as a presentation of the university's aims, and we can see from the context whether it has a firm image of what kind of institution it wants to be, and whether that image is an extension of what it currently is.
Normally, as the next step, the midterm goals are set as milestones for realizing the university image it upholds. But because the law calls for the main text of the goals to present targets from the aspect of "improvement," the approach will naturally be gradual and the link with the aforementioned university image may become blurred. We should take note of the extent to which universities utilize their discretionary power in the matter when setting their midterm goals.

The two systems that can be planned at the discretion of national universities

The other key lies in the internal organization of the universities. Because management councils and education and research councils are to be set up in line with the National University Corporation Law, there will be limited room for individual universities to express their own views. Then, what can universities plan at their own discretion? One such aspect is the relationship between the incorporated "corporate national university" and the "national university" actually in charge of education and research, in other words, rules that dictate the relationship between what were called the executive office and the individual schools, departments and research centers prior to incorporation. The information communication and decision-making mechanisms introduced here are where individual universities can display their abilities. The other is the governance system that centers on the board of directors. "The strong leadership of the president" has become the key phrase in the incorporation of national universities, but whether the board should have a system to support this Big Bang-type of concept is left to the discretion of the universities. At the same time, an important role will be played by the president selection committee, which has the authority to select and dismiss the president, who is responsible for education, research and management. However, while the National University Corporation Law sets restrictions on the sort of people who can sit on the selection committee, there is still room for discretion on the part of the universities when it comes to how to specifically utilize the committee.

It is now less than two months before the new system is launched. During this time, the universities must complete preparations to weather the transitional period while at the same time drawing up their future vision. Can such exogenous university reform as the incorporation of national universities trigger endogenous reforms so that universities try to change themselves? Expectations and doubts regarding national universities still abound.

February 2, 2004

February 2, 2004