Restructuring at National Universities: Implications for the Future of Higher Learning


National universities are seeing a restructuring boom for the first time in decades, with many faculties being newly launched and others being reorganized. Two key concepts behind many of these moves—combining the humanities and sciences and contributing to the community—are responses to priorities set forth by the Ministry of Education. But could these changes jeopardize national universities’ presence as Japan’s highest institutions of learning? Matsuura Yoshimitsu, an expert in higher education, discusses the university reforms now underway and their implications.

A Flurry of Academic Reorganizations

During 2016 alone, 14 national universities either established new faculties or reorganized their academic structures. These new divisions include the Faculty of Regional Design at Utsunomiya University in Tochigi Prefecture, the Faculty of Bioscience and Bioindustry at Tokushima University, the Faculty of Collaborative Regional Innovation at Ehime University, the Faculty of Art and Regional Design at Saga University, and the Faculty of Regional Innovation at the University of Miyazaki. Eleven more national universities plan to restructure in the academic year beginning in April 2017. Moreover, there has been a general surge of initiatives to shake up the research and education structure at national universities, such as by establishing new departments or transforming existing ones, revising admission capacities, and reorganizing graduate schools.

The new or reorganized faculties span a broad range of disciplines, but a conspicuous number of them focus either on combining the humanities and sciences or on contributing to the community. Utsunomiya University’s Faculty of Regional Design, for example, comprises three departments: Community Design, Architecture and Urban Design, and Civil Engineering and Regional Design.

Ehime University’s Faculty of Collaborative Regional Innovation, meanwhile, consists of four departments: Industrial Management (with courses in industrial management and business creation), Industrial Innovation (marine production science, paper industries, and manufacturing), Environmental Design (environmental sustainability and regional design and disaster mitigation), and Regional Resource Management (management of farming, mountain, and fishing villages, cultural resources management, and sports and health management). These programs aim to cultivate individuals who can contribute to the local community from the perspective of interdisciplinary integration of the humanities and sciences.

Another characteristic of these new faculties is their genesis in orders for existing faculties to “cede” their admission slots and teaching staff. Many of the realignments are being conducted in tandem with enrollment cuts at teacher-training faculties or freezes in admissions to courses known as zero-men katei. This applies to 10 out of the 14 universities that revamped their lineup of faculties in 2016.

Zero-men katei are courses offered at teacher-training faculties that do not require students to obtain a teaching certificate to graduate. Falling birthrates in Japan have led to shrinking demand for educators at schools with smaller student bodies, and graduates of these programs are moving on to increasingly diverse career paths. From 1987 onward, these faculties introduced various new courses including those on lifelong learning, the arts, culture, sports, regional studies, psychology and counseling, information, the environment, and international cultures.

Since 2006, however, again due to a shift in demand levels for schoolteachers, a growing number of universities have stopped admitting new students to zero-men courses and retuned their education faculties to their previous focus on teacher training. This trend picked up momentum in 2016, spurred on by the plans of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT) to redefine national universities’ mission and overhaul their organization and operations, as discussed below.

Incorporating and Enhancing the Schools

Japan’s national universities were incorporated in 2004. Prior to that they were administrative organizations of the state, strongly bound by institutional constraints in fiscal, personnel, and other matters. Turning them into national university corporations aimed to increase their flexibility and autonomy in administrative and managerial matters, thereby encouraging them to take initiative and promote distinctive research and education.

The incorporation of the schools was part of a series of administrative and fiscal reforms that also included stripping university faculty and staff of their status as civil servants. Following incorporation, the management-expense grants provided to each university as basic administrative funding was to be cut at an annual rate of 1%. Although these planned reductions were effectively frozen in fiscal 2010, the total distributed amount continued to decrease until fiscal 2013.

Beginning in fiscal 2013, following an exchange of views with each of these universities, MEXT decided to review their strengths, characteristics, and social roles—a core concept in national university incorporation—and to redefine their mission. Furthermore, under its National University Reform Plan, MEXT announced that in the current medium-term plan period, covering fiscal 2016–21, it would build on the results of measures implemented by universities, adjusting the distribution methods for management-expense grants and otherwise working to create an environment in which the schools regularly review their education and research organizations and their internal allocation of resources. The ministry thus aims to give the universities the means for making optimum use of their strengths and characteristics and to encourage their independent, autonomous improvement and development.

Finally, in June 2015, MEXT issued a notice on the “overhaul of organization and overall operations of national university corporations.” This news was widely reported and met with a large public response. The notice called on national universities to undertake swift organizational reforms. It demanded, in particular, that undergraduate faculties and graduate schools in the areas of teacher training and the humanities and sciences formulate plans for reorganization, taking into account the decline of the 18-year-old population, human-resource demand, the steps needed to ensure education and research quality, and their roles as national universities. The schools were also instructed to make active efforts to discontinue redundant organizations and switch to disciplines featuring high social demand.

This overhaul was to be promoted by allocating management-expense grants with the following priorities:

  1. Promoting education and research at an international or national level, as well as engaging in efforts that contribute to the local community (“local contribution” type; 55 universities)
  2. Promoting education and research at an international or national level, rather than at a local level (“international and national” type; 15 universities)
  3. Promoting world-class education and research and implementing its results in society (“excellence” type; 16 universities)

Each university is to select the direction that best suits its strengths and characteristics and then enhance its functions toward that end. The school must then draw up a vision and strategy for the fiscal 2016–21 period and submit assessment goals (measurable evaluation indices) to serve as criteria for evaluating specific initiatives and progress made in them; the results of these evaluations are reflected in grant allocations. Each university contributes the equivalent of about 1% of the basic management-expense grants, and the roughly ¥10 billion pooled in this manner is redistributed by MEXT.

Grants were distributed to national universities in fiscal 2016 at rates ranging from 75.5% to 118.6% of the previous amount, with 42 universities receiving more than before and 43 universities less (1 university did not request allocation). The largest annual increase was roughly ¥70 million, while the largest decrease was around ¥50 million. In fiscal 2017 the progress of initiatives by the universities was included in the evaluation, resulting in allocations ranging from 78.3% to 113.0% of the previous amount. Forty-one universities saw increases, up to a maximum of about ¥55 million, while 45 got reductions of up to ¥30 million.

Future Challenges for Reform

“Local contribution” universities account for 18 of the 25 institutions that are newly launching or realigning faculties in the 2016 and 2017 academic years. Moreover, half of those 18 institutions have received grant increases for two consecutive years. The flurry of faculty reorganizations would appear to suggest that the national university reforms are seeing some degree of success.

But challenges abound. First, prioritized support has only augmented the annual grant amounts by some tens of millions of yen. These increases may have provided an incentive for reform, but they are not sufficient to finance entirely new research and education. Thus, the universities can only shuffle their existing organizations in relatively minor ways. Some of the new faculties may have original names, but it is questionable as to how novel their research and education will be.

Second, while MEXT stresses spontaneous reform by national universities, it pairs this with pointed suggestions regarding the course of reform for teacher-training faculties and faculties in the humanities and social sciences. Universities are compelled to follow these suggestions, as their operations are greatly affected by how the ministry distributes the funds. If we look beyond the veneer of unique faculty names, the reforms being undertaken by national universities all appear to be headed in the same general directions of contributing to the community and combining the humanities and sciences.

Third, there is the question of whether these integrative and locally oriented faculties are truly consistent with the needs of society. As the buzzword kinō kyōka (strengthening of functions) makes clear, the ongoing reforms tend to define universities in terms of their “functions” in meeting societal demand, leading to a need for objective standards of evaluation to gauge how well these functions have been achieved. But if universities are defined in terms of their society-serving functions, it follows that the purposes of their research and education will be handed down to them from external actors.

What are the needs of society? At the end of the day, each university must define its social mission and purpose by choosing from among a diverse array of needs: the voices of prospective students and their parents, the demands of local businesses, and government policies, to name a few. Therein lies the importance of the initiative of national universities and academic freedom. The government does not speak for the needs of society. Universities that blindly follow government policy would be failing their own mission as bastions of learning.

Notwithstanding the various circumstances that led to the incorporation of national universities, it is significant that they have attained a level of independence that they lacked as administrative organizations of the state. Academic advancement can only be achieved on a foundation of freedom of learning and thought. Obtaining funding and providing employment to former bureaucrats must not be the raisons d’être of universities. Universities, including private institutions, should take this to heart lest they lose their pride as institutions of higher learning.

(Originally published in Japanese on March 20, 2017. Banner photo: Ehime University, home to the new Faculty of Collaborative Regional Innovation. © Aflo.)

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