EDITORIAL: Reform of universities

from The Asahi Shimbun

Bill must relax education ministry's iron grip.

The Upper House has begun deliberations on the government-backed university reform bill that would turn national universities into independent corporations. The bill has already cleared the Lower House.

Lower House debate dealt with whether the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology would continue to be so deeply involved in control and administration of the universities after they are incorporated. The ministry's answers to the question have so far been vague and equivocal.

We doubt whether the government-drafted bill will achieve the principal goal of reform, which is to encourage universities to develop their own character. The Upper House should amend the bill through thorough debate on the issue.

The bill would give the education minister final say over each university's ``medium-term goals,'' which are supposed to be the operating guidelines of an institution in all aspects, including education, research and administration, although the university is supposed to be consulted in the process. Universities would need the minister's approval of the ``medium-term plans'' to achieve their goals.

The bill could keep alive bad old regulatory traditions such as tight ministerial control over every facet of university operation-something that has hamstrung autonomy and initiative among the nation's universities.

Education Minister Atsuko Toyama has dismissed such concerns, saying the government only wants to watch over university operations to see they are managed properly to be accountable to taxpayers. Decisions on specific objectives and policies would be left to each university, Toyama pledged. But there is little in the bill so far to suggest the government intends to let universities set their own goals and make their own plans.

Thus amendments proposed by the opposition Minshuto (Democratic Party of Japan) are worth serious consideration. The Minshuto proposal would let universities set their own goals and make their own plans, which they would simply report to the ministry.

The education ministry indeed does get to decide the overall budget for national universities through policy coordination. But ministerial involvement in actual administration of institutions should be minimized.

One key concern is the makeup of the planned university evaluation committee. The committee, formed within the education ministry, would evaluate university performance as the basis for their budget allocations.

Although this would be a very important panel in terms of the future of individual universities, the ministry has not yet clarified how it will operate or who will be on it.

The only sure thing is that the ministry will pick the members. And the ministry seems intent on giving its officials some of the committee's administrative load. If the panel comes under the education ministry's control, it would simply be a tool for the ministry to control universities through budget allocations.

The makeup of the committee is of vital importance in ensuring the ministry will not keep up its iron grip on universities. Members must be experts with no direct stake in ministry interests and must be knowledgeable about university management, education and research. Private-sector expertise should be sought. The committee should be required to publish its university evaluations as well as minutes of its discussions leading up to the evaluations.

Although the bill says personnel affairs would be the purview of the university president, the bill has no provisions to restrict personnel exchanges among universities and the education ministry or universities offering jobs to retired education ministry bureaucrats.

If the ministry keeps sending its officials to university administrative sections even after the switch to independent corporations, the officials would act in the interests of the ministry-or at least in ways that reflect the ministry's wishes. Such practices would best be eliminated by a certain deadline. Administrators of universities should be as independent from government as teaching staff.

The proposed reforms are a good chance for national universities to lay out their future vision. Such vision, however, would be shortsighted unless universities are freed of the education ministry's iron grip.

--The Asahi Shimbun, June 2 (IHT/Asahi: June 3,2003)

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