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DOI : 10.2240/azojomo0130

The Separation of National Universities from the Government in Japan: Its Aftereffect

The Japanese government decided to change the status of all the national universities in February 2003.  According to the decision, the national universities turn to corporations (independent administrative institutions) as of April 1, 2004 [1].  The aim is said to be the reform of universities to suit the 21st century.  This is understood as part of the government reform that started in 2001.

The scheme of the independent administrative institution has been applied already to national research laboratories in 2001. As a former head of a national research laboratory, the author was involved in design and preparation of a functional organization. At the termination of the old scheme, the author retired. However, the author observed closely the change in the organization even after the reform. 

On the ground of these experiences, a prediction on what will happen in national universities is presented in this paper.  

Independent Administrative Institution

What is an independent administrative institution (IAI)? The government has its own definition.  But here, for practical understanding, it is defined in the author’s way.  It is a government –supported organization where the jobs are practiced preferably in a top-down management system with the highest possible effectiveness by eliminating as many of the previously observed regulations as possible for completion of the mission.  The remarkable point of IAI is the fixed term of operation for completion of fixed targets with fixed roadmaps.  National research laboratories became IAIs in 2001.  The targets to be completed were given from the ministries that the particular IAIs belong to.  The roadmaps were made by IAIs themselves.  Although government tried to change the status of the IAI employees to civilians, somehow the employees remained civil servants.  They wanted to avoid the complication arising from the status difference between university researchers and themselves. 

The university reform has been discussed persistently since the World War II.  After national research laboratories became IAIs, the discussion that the national universities be changed to IAIs was inevitable.  But the university members opposed to this change on the ground that the university autonomy may be lost.  The government compromise was to drop the ministry’s right to set the target for each University and to accept the naming term National University Corporation (NUC) be used instead of IAI.  The status change of employees to civilians was not much of argument.  National university employees considerably outnumber those of national research laboratories.

To the majority of national university members, this is a big change.  It is understandable that they feel the government too heavy-handed.  However, this is only the beginning of a series of huge change.  The reason the national university members have to face this change is, to make a long story short, the substantial university reform has not been made for almost 60 years. 

The 2009 Problem

By turning to National University Corporations, national universities are expected to renew the operational scheme.  From the view points of universities with science and technology based faculties, the most remarkable points are open and self-sustaining finance, significant collaboration with industries to accomplish the visible contribution to the society, and accountability to withstand the assessments.  These are described in the targets to be completed.  How to complete can be found in the roadmaps, which are again made by the universities themselves.  There, targets and deadlines are described with definite figures.  Thus the roadmaps are tough.  The drastic change hits every member to an unpredictable extent.

The predicted drastic change is not restricted within the universities.  We have 2009 problem.  Japanese 18-year-old population is decreasing and reaches to the total capacity of whole universities in Japan.  The trend is shown in Figure 1.  After 2009, universities in Japan will be excessive.  Attracting many students and keeping healthy finance are essential efforts.  Some of national universities decided to merge on the assumption that keeping the enough students would be a main issue before long.  National universities keep receiving government support that will be, according to some sources, cut for more than 1% every year.  In reality, the cut may climb up to several %, referring to the precedence in national research laboratories.  One of the purposes of IAI introduction was to save national expenditure in future.  The government support has to be taken as unreliable.  Leaning on the increase of tuitions may not work.  Government set the regulation that the increase of tuition in a National University Corporation has to be limited within 10% of the standard one.  NUCs will have to search for other resources. 

Change of 18 year-old population and university acceptance ratio in Japan.

Figure 1. Change of 18 year-old population and university acceptance ratio in Japan.

Students Share

The environment for university management will be increasingly difficult.  Many universities will have to run out of business.  So long as the enrollment is concerned, the share of the national universities is not large.  Currently the student share of private universities is more than 75%.  Table 1 shows some of statistics [2].  Thus private schools are already tough competitors.  They would not lose their share easily.  In addition, many private universities are alert against the national universities after the reform.

Table 1. Share of private schools in Japan as of May 1, 2003.

Total Numbers

Private Schools


Total Enrollment

Private Schools









Junior Colleges







High Schools







Junior High Schools.







Primary Schools














The big national universities like University of Tokyo, Kyoto University and Osaka University, do not seem to be much disturbed.  Their main issue seems how to keep the autonomy and continuous government support.  Sometimes the argument is focused on protest against heavy-handed bureaucrats of ministry of education, culture, sports, science and technology (MEXT).  If they do not realize that the pressure source is not MEXT but the public opinion, the argument will be fruitless.  It is also emphasized that the big national universities will not be 100% safe in the race of attracting enough students.

Municipal universities are desperately taking unique tactics.  They are in the middle of their own storm that is the Local Independent Administrative Institution Bill [3].  A tremendous confusion is taking place.  The main difficulty in a municipal university seems to be the leadership.  The source of the leadership is difficult to specify.  To make the problem more complicated, whether or not the Bill should be applied to each of the municipal universities depends on the decision of the municipal chief.  Within a narrow choice, members of municipal universities are trying hard to find the survival channels.  Thus the tactics seem to be in advertising their existence.

At present, local national universities look most serious in making effective strategies.  They are afraid that local national universities and private universities may be in the first group to run out of business.  They are trying to take all the possible actions to avoid such possibility.  Merging is one of the ways.  It has already started in last October 2002.  Figure 2 shows how merging, or consolidation, is taking place among local national universities.

Consolidations taking place among local national universities

Figure 2. Consolidations taking place among local national universities [1].

21st century COE program was introduced in 2002 and some of the universities were selected.  Selection was carried out for each of the properly classified disciplines.  For the disciplines that could not be covered in 2002, selection was made in 2003.  The competition for selection was unbelievably tough.  Most of universities believed that the survival power depended on whether they were selected. 

University Finance

The main sources of finance in universities are government support, tuition and donations.  The contract funds may be added to them in future.  The basic structure is already existent, but the distribution is different from university to university.  The government support to private universities is relatively small while donations are limited in national universities.  The current status of contract funds is mixed.  Today, all the funds coming from outside of MEXT is classified in this category in national universities.  To find out how much is coming from private sectors one has to look into the details of “contract funds.” In future, 1:1:1 ratio among government support, tuition and donation combined together, and contract funds is predicted to be a stable distribution of the university income.

In the above stated background, professors will be busier than ever before.  They have to make their works more visible to both students and to industries that collaborate with them on the development of new technology and accept students after graduation.  Pulling funds will be increasingly important and can be the important item for evaluation of their job performance.  Meanwhile they will be able to take out some portion of the contract fund for their own additional salary

Confusion In The Reform Process

The first term for all the National University Corporations will be 6 years.  They already proposed their targets to be completed with some details in roadmaps [4].  They will be assessed after 3 years and at the end of the term on the basis of the targets and roadmaps (1), in addition to the initial assessment that is being carried out currently.  Preparation for the assessment is a hard work.  Sometimes whole organization may be fully devoted for the assessment. 

Reform of management style is also heavy.  The work-place safety used to be supervised by the National Personnel Authority.  The degree of supervision was somewhat loose.  The Labor Standard Inspection Office (LSIO) under Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare will make the new supervision.  The office supervises in the same line as industries.  The request for safety measure is considerably up-graded.  An urgent improvement may be asked to many of the research laboratories.  In an effort of making smooth shift to the new management style, some universities introduced “model laboratories” to meet the LSIO guideline. 

The work manual should be different from the one under government regulation.  Rewriting of the work manual is necessary.  The work manual is, however, a thick document.  It covers all the possible work items.  Besides, rewriting needs a deep consideration concerning how the new organization is operated.  Each of the national universities must have worked for rewriting for some time in last year.  But to the author’s view, the volume is too large to rewrite in time.  Most of the national universities will use the same work manual that they have been using.  This means that works will be carried out according to the old regulations.  The work manual remaining old, the reform of work-place environment is difficult.  There is a good possibility that the work manual will not be substantially changed for coming 6 years.

The salary is said to be freely decided.  To make this expression more precise, the individual national university can set its own salary table freely.  But making a salary table is not an easy task.  One has to consider all the balance and reasoning.  This cannot be completed in a short time.  Thus the previously used salary tables will be employed in majority of national universities for some time.  The annual salary system may be employed for escaping from the old system.  But this system has to be employed with some caution for prevention of possible side effect.

Outline of the National University Bill

Figure 3. Outline of the National University Bill [1].

Shown above are some of the examples to cause confusion in the scene of reform process.  Many employees heard of good things happening after the reform.  The good results of the reform in reality will not become visible in a short time.  But some are easily frustrated and start complaining about the validity of the reform. 

Sustainable Future

It is reminded, however, that universities have a responsibility for guiding the society to an acceptable future.  In other words, universities are continuously expected to be the important source of fine cultures.  Students select universities for making their lives more meaningful.  Universities have to meet their demands.

In this connection, the reform should not be taken as the pressure from the government.  Struggling between pro- and unti-government groups within the university would be foolhardy.  It is particularly remarked here that the picture where a fighter for university autonomy is challenging a dragon called MEXT is far from the reality. 

On the other hand, some of bureaucrats tend to eliminate the necessary and acceptable course of negotiation and to jump to the quick results with the justification that the time is running short.  These attitudes unfortunately decelerate the process and stir up unnecessary hatred among the people to be persuaded.  

Making a new university where young students can polish themselves efficiently and effectively is desperately needed.  If one understands this reality, (s)he will realize that this is a good chance to create a sustainable future for the universities, no matter where (s)he belongs to.


  1. Home page of MEXT; http://www.mext.go.jp
  2. 2003 Survey for School Fundamentals, flash, MEXT (Aug. 8, 2003) (in Japanese)

This paper was also published in print form in “Advances in Technology of Materials and Materials Processing Journal, 6[2] (2004) 322-327”.

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