Home > Opinion
  print button email button

Tuesday, June 10, 2003

'Soviet-style' reforms won't improve national universities

The Upper House of the Diet is debating legislation aimed at turning national universities into "independent agencies."

Several years ago, a University of Tokyo professor quipped, "Japan's national universities could not get worse no matter how they are changed." No doubt state-run universities are beset by numerous problems both in research and education. The need to reform national universities goes without saying. However, opinion is sharply divided over what needs to be changed and how.

Although Japanese National Railways and Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Public Corp. were successfully privatized, more or less, in the mid-1980s, privatization will not necessarily produce better results in scientific and academic research. Given the degree of diversity, however, some areas of research could be privatized one way or another.

Generally, privatization is a feasible option for areas in which research results are linked to product development in the private sector, such as engineering and pharmacology. But areas such as basic science and the cultural and social sciences are difficult to privatize because of their limited practical utility. A blanket privatization would marginalize such sciences.

Initially the idea of the university as an independent agency was advanced to create a free and competitive research environment. But the proposed legislation goes against the original objective as it would set up the means for de facto central planning and control of scientific and academic research. In other words, it would lead to the "Sovietization" of national universities, even though that is not what the government has in mind.

The failure of the Soviet Union's centrally planned economy became all too apparent in the late 1970s. Planning the economy had proved far more difficult than had been expected. Soviet planners had thought that they could raise output to the desired levels by manipulating input. But running the real economy wasn't that simple.

The same goes for scientific and academic research. Raising its cost effectiveness through central planning is not as simple as it would seem. After all, it is impossible to predict research results. Indeed, as every researcher knows only too well, there is no way to conduct research on a planned basis without regard for costs and benefits.

Yet what is in the works is planning and control. First, medium-term research targets and plans would be approved by the education minister. Six years later, a committee of experts would determine the extent to which those targets and plans had been achieved. The results of these evaluations would then be reflected in budget allocations and other decisions. So the committee would act in essentially the same way as the Soviet state planning committee did, and the universities would operate as "factories."

Results of scientific and academic research are the fruits of individual ability and endeavor. Academia is essentially a world driven by individualism; that's why Nobel Prizes are given to individuals. One problem in the proposed legislation is that it places emphasis on the evaluation of organizations (universities, departments or courses) -- not individuals.

Imagine a university where all professors, except one who is a potential Nobel laureate, are mediocre. Then compare it with another university that doesn't have a Nobel Prize-class professor but whose faculty nonetheless produces well above the average number of research papers. Which "organization" should be given a higher mark? It's impossible to say.

An organization is a group of individuals. Research is the work of individuals, not their organization. This point, however, is often overlooked in Japan, where groupism holds sway.

The planned reform would do more harm than good. The socialist system collapsed because policymakers deluded themselves into believing they could plan the economy. By the same token, it is a fantasy to think that scientific and academic research can be planned. University reform based on such a fantasy is bound to retard research.

Real reform must involve:

* creating an environment in which individual researchers can work freely based on ingenuity and resourcefulness;

* exposing researchers to a strict evaluation by academic societies;

* Building a mechanism that provides competitive funds preferentially to researchers who have received high ratings from academia; and,

* promoting so-called useless research that has no immediate practical applications to help develop the kind of human resources needed in the postindustrial society.

Takamitsu Sawa, professor of economics at Kyoto University, is also director of the university's Economic Research Institute.

Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.