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Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2001

STAGING A COMEBACK

RENOVATING INSULAR IVORY TOWERS

Reforms shake higher education's foundations


Staff writer

Scholars at Japan's universities have long been criticized for enjoying "splendid isolation" within their ivory towers.

News photo
Professor Shunri Oda (right) conducts a class on advanced electron devices at Tokyo Institute of Technology, where some students are enrolled in the university's International Graduate Course.

But this may no longer be the case, as the university structure cannot remain immune to the dramatic social and economic upheavals roiling the nation.

The global shift toward knowledge-based economies increasingly makes universities -- both as bodies tasked with developing human resources and as providers of research results with potential for commercialization -- a key factor in determining a nation's competitiveness.

Nevertheless, Japan continues to experience brain drain while failing to attract top researchers from other countries.

According to the World Competitiveness Yearbook released in April by the International Institute for Management Development, a leading Swiss business school, Japan ranked lowest among 49 economies surveyed with regard to university education meeting the needs of the economy.

This dismal state of affairs would be fatal to the country in the long run, so the government has no choice but to make the nation's universities more competitive.

"Universities in Japan are undergoing drastic change," education minister Atsuko Toyama stressed during a reception held after a symposium in Tokyo last month to promote partnerships among universities, corporations and the government.

"The focus (of these reforms) is how to enable universities to provide excellent human resources and contribute to society."

In the early 1990s the government launched a reform drive, liberalizing conditions set on universities' organizational structure and curricula and introducing a self-evaluation system.

Gradual change, however, shifted into high gear this year with the election of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and his agenda of "reform without sanctuaries."

A drastic reform plan unveiled in June by the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry rocked the foundations of the nation's academia.

Dubbed the Toyama Plan, after the minister, it calls for the reorganization and consolidation of the 99 national universities while deeming that roughly 30 universities, regardless of whether they are state-run, be recognized as Japan's top schools.

These schools would have dibs to receive subsidies for doctoral course research after evaluation by a committee.

The grant system is seen as an effort to concentrate resources on the institutions seen as most promising in surviving international competition.

Critics say, however, that since the government's main concern when hammering out the plan was fiscal and administrative reforms, its real impact on boosting the quality of education and research at universities is questionable.

Skeptics also say that the only universities that would benefit from the grant system are those that are already viewed as the most prestigious -- the colleges whose roots are in the old Imperial Universities, the seven set up under the Imperial University Order of 1886.

The education ministry has been quick to rebut naysayers, however, emphasizing that the main aim of the proposed merger of national universities is to develop them into "unique universities in a competitive environment," and not to reduce their numbers.

Sixteen universities have already reached merger agreements and 13 universities and colleges are currently in consolidation talks, according to the ministry.

Although many national universities, especially medical colleges and their neighboring universities, are feeling pressure from the ministry to merge, some acknowledge that it is an opportunity to increase their competitiveness.

Misaku Tsuneaki, vice president of Yamanashi University, said his school's planned merger in October with Yamanashi Medical University is advantageous to both parties, explaining that his university's faculty of engineering and the faculty of medicine at Yamanashi Medical University have already started codeveloping robots used in hospitals.

"Such exchanges can widen the circle of students' acquaintances and enrich their education," he said.

But there are some indications that not all "arranged marriages" may start off on the right foot.

Miyazaki Medical College agreed last month with Miyazaki University to consolidate in 2003. Tamotsu Morimitsu, president of the medical college, believes the college and the university -- which consists of faculties of engineering, agriculture, and education and culture -- should integrate and specialize in life science. By strengthening one certain field, "students with the ability to enter the former Imperial Universities might pick us as their first choice," he said.

However, Hiroshi Fujiwara, president of Miyazaki University, played down the idea, saying it is just one of several options.

Some also question the process proposed to distribute doctoral course grants, which would be awarded to 10 to 30 courses in five fields -- mainly in the natural sciences -- by committees that evaluate academic achievements.

Masuo Aizawa, president of Tokyo Institute of Technology, said he supports the grant system so long as the judging process is transparent, adding that the government should use it as a tool to enhance the academic levels of the universities.

However, private universities, as well as state-run universities that are located in rural areas or are small in scale, fear that most of the subsidies would go to certain national universities.

An official of the Japan Association of Private Colleges and Universities said the association fears that the majority of judging committee members will be professors of national universities.

"The ministry should take note that the scientific achievements of small universities are (naturally) less than those of universities of large scale," said Isamu Matsumoto, vice president of state-run Ochanomizu University, a women's university with about 1,000 students enrolled in its graduate school.

An education ministry official explained that the ministry looked to how universities in the United States and Europe operate in competitive environments in crafting the grant idea.

For example, in the U.S., the federal government gives the majority of its grants to top-level universities so that research and development can be promoted effectively, according to Takekazu Ehara, a professor at Kyoto University and an expert in comparative studies of education.

While acknowledging that the policy has been successful in boosting competitiveness on the whole, Ehara said it has also resulted in a wide gap among universities -- something that could happen in Japan with the introduction of the "Top 30" idea.

Katsuhiko Shirai, vice president of Waseda University, one of the nation's top private universities, said that subsidies for graduate schools of the old Imperial Universities already exceeds those for private universities because, in recent years, the education ministry has been focusing resources on the national universities. The new grants would just give even more favorable treatment to these universities, he said.

Furthermore, the problems facing Japanese universities, especially national ones, cannot be solved simply by selecting the top 30 schools and throwing money at them, critics argue.

Their inefficiencies must also be corrected, and to this end, the Toyama Plan calls for transforming state-run universities into independent administrative entities, which will give them greater autonomy as well as more responsibility regarding their management. The education ministry hopes to submit relevant bills to the Diet by fiscal 2003 at the earliest.

The proposals also suggest systemizing the participation of intellectuals and experts outside the university into an executive committee and changing the pay system for teaching staff to increase emphasis on performance.

Others predict that the step will make the universities place greater emphasis on research.

"Japanese universities have lacked the function of promoting studies and research in a strategic way," Aizawa of TITech said, emphasizing the importance of supporting free and creative studies while at the same time strategically improving academic competitiveness.

He also pointed out, however, that the path to efficiency would not be as smooth as that for companies, explaining that a university president does not enjoy the top-down relationship with professors that company managers have with their subordinates.

The strong autonomy traditionally enjoyed by university departments may also serve as an obstacle for fast, flexible management decisions.

Adding to universities' woes is the falling birthrate, which means that there will be a smaller pool from which to draw students in the coming years.

This is particularly worrying for private universities, which have shouldered the role of providing higher education to the masses since the period of Japan's rapid economic growth. Some have already started to fall short of their freshman quotas.

As one way to attract more students, private universities have begun targeting adults craving more professional knowledge. In recent years, private universities have begun offering evening classes for professionals.

Toshiro Tanaka, vice president of Keio University, said Keio's graduate school of business was the first in Japan to offer a master's of business administration course.

"But, the competition is intensifying as the number of universities with MBA courses has increased," he said.

Furthermore, many experts say the competitiveness of Japanese universities cannot be fully realized without input from outside.

To this end, the education ministry has suggested that the universities that win the Top 30 grants use the money on research with top-level universities overseas and invite researchers from other countries.

Takeshi Katagiri, a biology researcher of Riken Tsukuba Institute, notes that many Japanese researchers who were active in the U.S. become less so once they gain higher posts in Japanese universities.

Katagiri, who has a doctoral degree from the University of Tsukuba, pointed out that the environment at Japanese universities discourages free and creative ideas. It is also hard to obtain the latest information, compared to universities in the U.S. where researchers from around the world gather, he added.

Mamoru Takahashi, senior researcher at Mitsubishi Research Institute said that while the competitiveness of Japanese universities has been recognized to some extent in Asia, they lag far behind on a global scale.

"Many universities had only a local perspective and did not consider international academic capability," said Takahashi, pointing out that most lectures are given in Japanese.

In fact, due to the language barrier, most students from overseas interested in studying in Japan cannot get into the universities, said Aizawa of TITech. In order to draw top-rate students from other countries, TITech launched an International Graduate Course in 1993, which is conducted in English and Japanese, and 50 graduate students from various countries are currently studying in seven courses.

Internationalization is a task for private universities, too. Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Oita Prefecture, set up by Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto last year, recruits about half of its students from overseas and nearly half of the teaching staff is foreign.

"Students from overseas are much more active in studying and have high abilities of information gathering," remarked Kazuichi Sakamoto, president of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University. "Japanese students are greatly influenced."

"What is needed (in Japan) now is a wider variety of universities," Takahashi of Mitsubishi Research Institute said. "There should be more universities that accept students and teachers from abroad . . . and others should place emphasis on research and development."



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