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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

School tinkering that hurts


The education ministry is pushing university reform based on a U.S. model. As I wrote in April, the ministry in 1990 introduced a policy of sharply expanding graduate school admission quotas. In the next year, it relaxed undergraduate restrictions in graduate-level liberal-arts programs, allowing even freshmen students to take courses in specialized subjects.

In the 2004 school year, national universities were converted into independent educational corporations. At the same time, the education ministry started implementing an annual 1 percent cut in grants for university operating expenses (personnel and nonpersonnel expenses) while offering a commensurate raise in research expenses known as "competitive funds." It began to supply generous research funds — hundreds of millions of yen each — for a limited number of selected projects. The ministry also encouraged universities to adopt a fixed-term employment system for teaching staff.

In my opinion, introducing only parts of the U.S. university system at Japanese universities — without taking into account system complementarity — does no good and causes much harm.

Let's compare Japanese and U.S. university systems and practices. In Japan, the number of universities introducing fixed-term employment for teaching staff has gradually increased, although they are still a minority. In the United States, all universities have introduced such a system for assistant professors.

Basically, since U.S. universities do not promote assistant professors to associate professors, the fixed-term system works smoothly. In Japan, where only a small number of universities have fixed employment terms for assistant and associate professors, job opportunities are severely limited after their terms are up. Anxious about future employment, they can hardly devote themselves to long-term research. Furthermore, most universities favor degree holders from their own graduate schools, thereby reducing job mobility for university teachers.

In short, even though fixed-term employment is incompatible with the traditional systems and practices of Japanese universities, the education ministry is pushing it anyway. Fixed-term employment for teaching staff is likely to undermine, instead of enhance, the international competitiveness of Japanese academic and scientific expertise.

A major difference between Japan and the U.S. is in teaching staff salaries. U.S. universities have a merit-based annual pay system similar to one for professional baseball players, while their Japanese counterparts have a long tradition of seniority-based pay. In Japan, academic accomplishments have nothing to do with pay.

In promotions to professorship, seniority is the most important factor, as merit is not clearly defined. In the humanities, fair peer review and assessment of articles for publication in academic journals are unlikely to function properly. Moreover, even though articles written for nonacademic publications have stronger social impact in terms of the number of readers, there is a growing tendency to accept for merit only those articles written for academic journals and accompanied by peer review and assessment.

Competition among universities in recruiting top brains is becoming more intense. In the U.S., university ratings are based on teaching performance — namely, the number and total pages of articles printed in academic journals and the number of citations from those articles (citation indexes). "Top-performing" professors are then sought after by many universities, and pay often becomes crucial in negotiations between recruiters and their targets.

In Japan, promises of pay rarely serve — and are unlikely to be used in the future — as a tool for recruiting university teachers. The amount of pay is unlikely to influence the behavior of university teachers in Japan, where the samurai tradition of "putting honor and pride above everything else" is still alive.

What is happening now, though, is causing wider gaps between universities. Since a university's prestige is often the only reason for job mobility, it is next to impossible to halt the flow of teachers from lower-ranked to higher-ranked institutions.

Moreover, in my opinion, the Japanese policy of expanding graduate schools and establishing graduate schools for professionals, based on the U.S. model, will only lead to redundancies, since Japanese universities already provide specialized undergraduate study. Various university systems and practices complement one another; therefore, reforming only some systems while leaving others intact looks like a dubious approach.

At U.S. universities, fixed-term employment and merit systems, along with other systems, are effective in introducing the principle of competition into research activities. But copying U.S. practices at Japanese universities will bring disastrous effects. The education ministry is tinkering too much, ignoring the complementarity of systems.

Japanese universities have entered an unprecedented crisis. Research expenses are increasingly being concentrated on selected projects (corporations understandably concentrate on selected projects). But concentrating on selected projects is by no means desirable since it is impossible for human beings — who are not God — to predict the outcome of research. To err is human and misjudgments are inevitable in selecting research projects.

Businesses that misjudge go bankrupt — end of story. On the other hand, if spending 1 billion yen government funds on a selected research project over five years produces no tangible results, nobody is required to take responsibility. Thus letting a few experts select research projects whose outcome is impossible to predict could lead to an outrageous waste of government funds. The present system of distributing government research funds needs a thorough review.

Takamitsu Sawa is a professor at Ritsumeikan University's Graduate School of Policy Science and a specially appointed professor at Kyoto University's Institute of Economic Research.

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