A new amendment to the laws governing universities, making its way into the The Japanese parliament, the Diet, has drawn opposition from academics who say it will strengthen the top-down management of national universities and further erode autonomy and freedom in higher education.
Japan's House of Representatives (lower house) passed the amendment on April 22 to strengthen the auditor's role in national universities. The amendment bill is now pending final approval in the House of Councilors.
An official from the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology said that the amendment is part of the government's reforms to promote university autonomy.
"The new amendment aims at self-government in universities through expanding the role of the auditor," said Yuki Shigeta, an official with the national division of support for university corporations in the ministry's office of higher education. University World News .
But critics agree. They point out that although the auditor is appointed to monitor the university rector, the irony is that under current law the position is decided including consultation with the rector, whose appointment in turn is approved by the Ministry of Education. Therefore, the amendment could encourage official interference in universities.
“The amendment has solidified the controversial process of appointing an auditor who is partially selected by the government. There is no guarantee of independence from an auditor who is supposed to control the university president, ”explained Shun Ishihara, professor of sociology at Meiji Gakuin University.
Ishihara spoke out against the amendment in the Japanese Diet last week. During his speech in the House, he underlined that Article 23 of the postwar Japanese Constitution protects academic freedom and stressed that measures taken to restrict this autonomy must be terminated.
Ishihara referred to the threat to academic autonomy, pointing to the past experience of the wartime Japanese totalitarian regime controlling universities for national military purposes.
Academics recently formed Academics who seek the recovery of university self-government, to combat worrying government reforms. Members' comments on the website denounce harassment and disciplinary measures by university administrations that link to interference by officials in management policy.
His petition to oppose the system for the election of university rectors, which was launched in March, already has almost 3,000 signatures.
Need for university reforms
Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a conservative, long advocated for higher education reforms to address declining national resources for research and face the global challenges that have caused Japanese universities to fall in international rankings. He pushed an agenda of scientific innovation and internationalization as priorities in Japanese higher education and notably rejected increased funding for the humanities and liberal arts.
The Japan Association of National Universities explained that the reforms are necessary to stimulate university education against the background of a dwindling youth population and high national debt.
Japan has the highest rate of national debt (151% of gross domestic product) among industrialized countries. The amendments and new legislation were intended to make universities less dependent on government subsidies and more competitive for research funds that will promote innovation.
Japan also has the lowest budget in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, spending only 3.4% of national income on education compared to the OECD average of 4.5%.
In this context, the previous Abe administration enacted the University Corporations Act of 2004 followed by the amendment of 2015, apparently aimed at turning public institutions into autonomous entities. However, experts see them as milestones in promoting autonomy through government-led changes in university management.
Changes in the selection of the university rector
A significant measure in this autonomy strategy is the adoption of a university selection committee with the authority to appoint the university rector. For the first time since the law was passed in 2004, the committee to select the university leader includes outsiders such as former bureaucrats and businessmen, as well as academics within the university.
The president is also empowered to make changes to university research and curriculum and to abolish any major department or field without final approval from the faculty.
Professor Shigeru Mitsumoto, an expert on university governance and reform at Hokkaido University, views the 2004 law and the 2015 amendment as a top-down approach to a much-needed change in Japanese higher education policy.
“I am not against adopting urgently needed reforms to combat the big problems facing Japanese universities. But politicians cannot force short-sighted solutions by significantly weakening university self-government, "he explained.
Mitsumoto's research advocates for teacher-led reforms that must be supported by higher public spending for universities. A major challenge in Japan is promoting international programs such as English curricula and collaborative research. Internationalization, for example, needs public funds to support new programs and staff, it says.
The Union of Japanese Universities, a A representative sample of unions representing almost 100 national and private universities is one of the main criticisms of the presidential electoral committee. In a public statement published on April 14, it points out that the system has already led to controversial selections and university management. divided.
Among recent cases of high p This includes the controversial election of Kyosuke Nagata, president of the University of Tsukuba in October 2020, and that of Teruo Fujii chosen by the selection committee of the University of Tokyo. Both presidents lost the election of teachers.
Professor Yoichiro Miyamoto, professor of American literature at the Open University of Japan and former dean of the Ph.D. program in literature and linguistics at the University of Tsukuba, left the institution after a 23-year career that included the initiation of office reforms. planning of education. The experience showed the difficulties faced in establishing innovative change in the university, he said.
“One of the most important lessons during my tenure in Tsukuba was the need to strengthen the dialogue between the administration and the faculty. The reforms are the result of a constant discussion between all the interested parties of the university and that includes the students, ”he told University World News .
Miyamoto believes that there is an urgent need for the ministry to evaluate its ongoing reform strategy and warns that the current top-down system of government will increase mistrust between the faculty and the government.
"Professors will resist changes that only respond to short-term interests, such as raising the world ranking of Japanese universities," he said.