01 February 2008

A brief look at academic freedom in HE in Japan

A brief look at academic freedom in higher education in Japan
by Charles Jannuzi


Unlike early modern Japan, in the post-war period, academic freedom is now firmly established as a positive right in the Japanese constitution, which the Occupation government promulgated in 1946. This document, along with fundamental laws creating a new education system, took effect in 1947, a year when most Japanese were struggling to feed, clothe, and house themselves. Along with the more commonly stated rights of' freedom of speech, thought, conscience, assembly and association, the constitution states that academic freedom is guaranteed. So who or what limits this constitutional right?

Relatively free

If viewed from the perspectives of the freedom to teach, do scholarship or research within a recognized specialty, academics at national and public universities in Japan have considerable latitude. They do not have to conform to a national curriculum or use ministry-approved textbooks. If they write textbooks for the lower levels of education, they will, however, find the content subject to the government's approval.

Compared with corporate researchers, many working at universities and national research centers can pursue pure research and abstract theory, regardless of immediate applications or returns on investment.

Most cases that concern academic freedom, at least in part, play themselves out in labor arbitration negotiations and courts. This is because academic freedom is often said to be violated when universities and their programs are accused of not providing a legitimate reason when demoting, financially penalizing, firing, or not renewing the contract of teaching or research personnel.

How reforms and restructuring hurt academic self-governance

An example is Tokyo Metropolitan University (TMU), the highest-ranking public (not national) university in Japan. Because of troubled finances at many local governments, starting in 2005, the 86 public universities were put on a path of 'consolidation' and 'corporatization' similar to national universities (all 87 of which were corporatized in 2003-04).

In anticipation of the reforms, as early as 2003, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government proposed combining several smaller institutions of higher education with TMU to save money while creating new programs of study that were supposed to be more in touch with post-industrial job markets.

Many academics at the smaller institutions facing absorption and re-organization have objected vehemently to the loss of autonomy the reforms would result in. For example, they cite the proposed imposition of performance-based pay and five-year contracts. A hundred professors and lecturers at institutions which would be absorbed by TMU also refused to sign agreements for new course assignments.

The administration needs these signatures to apply to the national government for approval in establishing the re-chartered public university corporation.

Moreover, the dissenting academics demanded that faculty councils retain control of teaching appointments and course assignments. Many object to the proposed heavier load of large, introductory level classes. They also wish to avoid being put into a lower status requiring them to become contractually or provisionally employed teachers of general education classes.

University educators nationwide have followed the contentious developments at TMU. Unlike at public universities, the administrations of former national universities (now National University Corporations or NUCs) have been reluctant to propose such a system for most of their academics.

University of Kobe

That reluctance changed recently and the largely powerless foreign lecturers became the precedent-setting example. In April 2005 University of Kobe, a top former national university, adopted a contract system for its foreign lecturers, limiting them to a three-year contract and no automatic renewals--although they would be allowed to compete for the position should it be re-opened to new candidates.

In contrast to institutions with national or public charters, the policies and practices that affect academic freedom and employment rights within Japan's extensive private system of universities and two-year colleges (together totaling 984 institutions) vary so much as to make concise generalizations nearly impossible.

It is illuminating to look at the situation foreign lecturers and instructors face at private universities because their cases often attract more attention than those of Japanese nationals.

The plight of foreign nationals at private universities

At one extreme, discrimination is obviously rampant: unlike their Japanese counterparts not on contracts, foreign teachers at many private universities and colleges face arbitrary dismissal, and have one-year or three-year contracts with strict renewal limits imposed while receiving lower salaries, no bonuses and higher pay cuts.

They may also be barred from meetings where decisions are made, excluded from union membership, and be denied health insurance and retirement benefits, since employers try to avoid bearing their share of fees for the national scheme.

Any charge of nationwide discrimination, however, has to be qualified because the administrations of some private universities and colleges are so dictatorial and the unions so weak that even Japanese nationals can face similarly severe employment conditions and unfair labor practices.

Moreover, the very numerous part-time staff who often do more teaching than full-time faculty, regardless of nationality have very little control over their job situations and fewer employment rights or benefits.

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