Academics oppose ‘top down’ university governance reform

A new amendment to laws governing universities, making its way through the Japanese parliament, the Diet, has sparked opposition from academics who say it will strengthen 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 22 April to strengthen the role of auditor in national universities. The amendment bill is now awaiting final passage in the House of Councillors.

An official at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology said the amendment is part of the government’s reforms to promote university autonomy.

“The new amendment is aimed at self-governance in universities through the expansion of the role of the auditor,” Yuki Shigeta, the official at the national university corporation support division at the ministry’s higher education bureau, told University World News.

But critics beg to differ. They point out that while the auditor is appointed to monitor the president of the university, the irony is that under the existing law the position is decided inclusive of consultation with the president whose appointment in turn is approved by the Ministry of Education. The amendment could therefore foster 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 against the amendment at the Japanese Diet last week. During his address to the House he underlined that Article 23 in Japan’s post-war Constitution protects academic freedom and stressed that steps taken to curtail this autonomy must be stopped.

Ishihara referred to the threat to academic autonomy, pointing to the past experience of the wartime totalitarian Japanese regime that controlled universities for national military goals.

Academics recently formed Scholars Seeking Recovery of University Self-Governance, to combat worrying government reforms. Comments from members on the website report harassment and disciplinary measures from university administrations that they link to the interference of officials in management policy.

Their petition opposing the system of electing university presidents, which was launched in March, already has almost 3,000 signatures.

Need for university reforms

Former prime minister Shinzo Abe, a conservative, long argued for higher education reforms to meet a decrease in national resources for research and meeting global challenges that has seen Japanese universities drop in international rankings. He pushed an agenda of science innovation and internationalisation as priorities in Japanese higher education and notably rejected increased funding of humanities and the 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 industrialised countries. The amendments and new legislation aimed to make universities less dependent on government subsidies and more competitive for research funds which will promote innovation.

Japan also has the lowest budget among the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, spending just 3.4% of national revenue on education compared to the OECD average of 4.5%.

Against this backdrop the previous Abe administration enacted the 2004 University Corporation Act followed by the 2015 amendment, ostensibly aimed at turning public institutions into self-governed entities. However, experts view them as landmarks in promoting autonomy through government-led changes in university management.

Changes to university president selection

A significant measure in this autonomy strategy is the adoption of a university selection committee with the authority to appoint the university’s president. 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 in addition to academics within the university.

The president is also empowered to make changes in research and the university curriculum and to abolish any department or major field without ultimate approval from the faculty.

Professor Shigeru Mitsumoto, an expert on university governance and reforms at Hokkaido University, views the 2004 law and 2015 amendment as a top-down approach to much-needed change in Japanese higher education policy.

“I am not against adopting reforms that are urgently needed to combat the big problems faced by Japanese universities. But politicians cannot force short-sighted solutions by significantly weakening university self-governance,” he explained.

Mitsumoto’s research advocates faculty-led reforms that must be supported by higher public spending for universities. A major challenge in Japan is promoting international programmes such as English language curricula and collaborative research. Internationalisation, for instance, needs public funds to support new staff and programmes, he says.

The Union of Japanese Universities, a cross section of unions representing almost 100 national and private universities, is a leading critic of the presidential election committee. In a public statement released on 14 April it points out the system has already resulted in controversial selections and divided university management.

High profile recent cases include 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 faculty election.

Professor Yoichiro Miyamoto, teaching American literature at the Open University of Japan and former dean of the doctoral programme in literature and linguistics at the University of Tsukuba, left the institution after a 23-year career that included initiating reforms in the office of education planning. The experience showed the difficulties faced when establishing innovative change in the university, he said.

“One of the most important lessons during my Tsukuba tenure was the need to strengthen dialogue between administration and faculty. Reforms are the result of constant discussion between all university stakeholders and that includes the students,” he told University World News.

Miyamoto believes there is an urgent need for the ministry to evaluate its ongoing reform strategy and warns the current top-down governance system will increase mistrust between faculty and government.

“Faculty will resist changes that only meet short-term interests such as raising the global ranking of Japanese universities,” he said.