Universities face lawsuits from job-insecure researchers
Japanese labour policies were changed in April 2013 to make contract employment the norm in universities. Academics are currently employed on a contract with the right to an extension to open-ended or permanent status after 10 years.
The Ministry of Education says this system encourages much-needed competition and reforms in Japan’s higher education.
However, many researchers, first hired in 2013 when the rule first came into force, now face being laid off before 2023 – before they are able to gain the right to permanent employment after 10 years on extendable contracts – as universities attempt to dodge the financial implications of permanent appointees.
Alarm over likely job losses
The Ministry of Education reports that more than 3,000 researchers at universities and research centres will become eligible to apply for permanent status next year, which is causing alarm over likely job losses as cost-cutting universities attempt to avoid giving them tenure.
Many universities have kept researchers from abroad and adjunct professors on temporary contracts and are likely to lay them off, labour unions said.
“Even at prestigious science institutions, researchers struggle to continue their studies. The lack of financial and work stability poses a severe risk to Japan’s research and higher education development,” said Toru Nakano, a former professor at the Graduate School of Frontier Biosciences, Osaka University.
Nakano, a specialist in stem cell research and epigenetics, told University World News the dire situation for Japan’s post-doctoral researchers is related to universities’ cost-cutting pressures. “Cutting human resources by eliminating tenure positions is the result,” he said.
Nakano also cited an ambiguous evaluation system in universities that leads to applications for full-time positions being rejected. The extension of current 10-year academic contracts is based on evaluations carried out within university departments. “Most often we simply don’t know the reason for their rejection,” he said.
In what is an unprecedented challenge to the current system, the first lawsuit was filed in March by a science researcher in his 60s employed on a part-time basis at RIKEN, Japan’s flagship natural sciences institution which has the country’s largest network of top laboratories.
Represented by the labour union, the researcher, who remains anonymous, is filing for JPY1.1 million (US$7,900) compensation for serious damage to his research and team after RIKEN asked him to close his laboratory work last year.
The researcher, whose 10-year contract ends in 2023, said he was forced to suspend his accumulated research on optical imaging techniques for early breast cancer detection despite steady progress and achievements.
His lawyer Yosuke Minaguchi told University World News it was a landmark case because RIKEN does not face financial constraints. “The researcher is fighting for stable employment, not only for himself and his team, but also to stop the brain drain of talented researchers leaving Japan for new jobs,” Minaguchi said.
Last month RIKEN announced that 380 researchers would lose their jobs after the 10-year contract limit. The statement added that some researchers would be re-hired based on their projects.
In the 1990s RIKEN had about 400 researchers, mostly permanent employees working on basic physics and chemistry at the main Tokyo campus. Despite expanding research to include preventive medicine, brain science and other fields, 77% of its current employees, who number almost 3,000, are on fixed-term contracts, according to media reports.
Out of the 380 researchers to be axed, 203 are directly attached to the institution. The loss of these scientists and the closure of their research projects will affect another 42 laboratory-based workers and 177 people working in research-related jobs.
The institution has acknowledged that the number is high compared to previous years. From fiscal year 2019 (beginning in April) to fiscal year 2021, on average each year 170 researchers have completed their terms and left RIKEN, it said.
This month a lawsuit was filed against Tokai University by eight part-time lecturers claiming that the university has breached their labour contracts. Tokai did not extend permanent status this April to the plaintiffs, who had worked for five years at Tokai and received only annual extensions.
In response, Tokai has said applications for full-time status can only be accepted after the completion of 10 years of work.
In a similar case in 2020, the Tokyo High Court supported a demand for permanent status without having to serve 10 years by a language teacher at the private Senshu University in Tokyo. This case and the Tokai lawsuit are being fought on the basis that the 10-year time limit is aimed at researchers and not part-time language teachers or lecturers.
Impact on research
Despite the government’s claim that fixed contracts support job mobility and competition, the decline in tenured positions has not led to successful results, critics say. They note that a steady decline in the number of post-doctoral students at Japanese universities could be a threat to the future of higher education, impacting science and the humanities alike.
Often quoted is Yoshinori Ohsumi, a cell biologist and 2016 Nobel Laureate, who warned that the entire discipline of science is in danger. He said science will “hollow out” unless young Japanese researchers are given a chance to engage in long-term research.
Eisuke Enoki, head of Kaseikan, an organisation that studies science policy, predicts further deterioration.
“While competition is beneficial, if the result of the 10-year labour contract leaves senior researchers facing financial bankruptcy, then the system is not working,” he said.
According to Enoki, transfers for middle-aged researchers are not easy in a conservative Japanese labour market, and this is off-putting for young people wanting to enter research.
Labour unions are calling on the government to intervene to prevent the layoffs.
The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare said in 2020 they had asked universities to avoid layoffs, while the education ministry announced new funding pledges to help young researchers, for example, a new government fund of JPY10 trillion (US$72 billion) set up in May this year aimed at expanding support for new research at universities through returns from investments.
While Japan’s R&D funding increased in the 1990s, jobs were often under fixed-term contracts with lower pay and fewer benefits in comparison to tenure. Yet the practice then was that contracts were renewed indefinitely, said Nakano.
‘Time to admit mistakes’
“The worst period began after the government cut subsidies to national universities. That has particularly affected the science and research departments. It’s time to admit mistakes and rectify the situation,” Nakano said.
RIKEN’s President Makoto Gonokami announced new policies last month to develop “research career paths that offer both stability and mobility”.
As RIKEN is expanding its projects with increased budgetary resources leading to 200 new positions, it said in a statement last month that during the current fiscal year it will allow anyone, regardless of existing contract limits on the length of their employment at RIKEN, to apply for new project jobs after finishing their present job.
“Allowing researchers to join a new research project without a break in their employment at RIKEN means that these employees obtain the right to apply for a switch to indefinite-term employment,” it said.