03 April 2009

Japan must continue reforms in tertiary education, says OECD

Some academics got together by the OECD were given the 'cook's tour' of HE in Japan and claim to have got enough data and insights to put together a report. The report is promoted with the following headline: "Japan must continue reforms in tertiary education, says OECD".

As if anyone ever argued for whole systems to discontinue reforms once the reforms are set in motion, no matter how poorly planned and executed they might be (instead, the norm seems to be go for more reform until overreach is reached--and often that sort of overreach is reform suicide).

The OECD makes summaries and full reports available. To read about what the OECD thinks of HE in Japan, you can start here:


Some exceprts:

>>Key recommendations include:<<

Let's look at each key recommendation, which are striking for their vagueness.

1. >>The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology should adopt a more strategic approach to planning and leave detailed operational plans to the institutions.<<

What if all strategy is local? What does the OECD suggest as strategic? Perhaps hitting national targets and meeting emerging 'global standards'. But as I've pointed out many times before, the reforms of the past two decades seem empty because basically those who control the purse strings get control of management. So long as the national government and its ministries control the money, they will want to exercise control over institutions.

2. >>Tertiary institutions should take better advantage of their new autonomy, for example through new approaches to academic career tracks and internal resource allocation.<<

So far this seems to have translated into limiting tenure to full professors (at least in theory, still largely untested on Japanese associate and assistant professors) and filling up personnel requirements with the hiring of more and more part-time teachers and temporary, contractual research personnel.

3. >>Resource allocation in both national and public universities should continue to shift from inputs to performance.<<

What if performance is evaluated as the abilities to spend money got from the national government and to request successfully more money to spend? And most of this waste is linked to a science and technology research establishment.

4. >>Universities should have greater flexibility to set tuition fees.<<

National and public universities (or quasi-national and quasi-public, since the passing of legislation since 2004-5) are still forced to keep fees lower than private ones, but that is because they receive the bulk of government money, much of it for exactly that purpose--to keep university education affordable.

So far 'flexibility' has meant these universities have continued to raise their fees--even as the economy has been deflationary, education and medical fees continue to rise. However, national and public universities and colleges continue to be a much better deal, with fees almost on average half of private ones.

The issue that is eating at the national universities is the unfairness inherent to the set, subsidized tuition fees. That is, engineering and medical students, for example, pay the same as humanities and social science majors. That is a great deal for them, considering how few resources most institutions spend on humanities and social science majors. So in effect mass access to public education is being used to fund a social elite's education. This is especially true of the medical profession here, where the sons of doctors tend to form the next generation of doctors.

5. >>Student loans should be payable after graduation, with payments varying according to income.<<

They must have been running out of recommendations at this point. Japanese families tend to borrow less for university educations. They are used to paying out large lump sums for the social rites of passage (senior high education, university education, marriage, re-location to start a full-time job). It's true the bad economy of the past 15 years has affected upper working class families and their ability to tap savings to pay for such things.

6. >>Japan should organise a broad consultative process to review the possibility of voluntary consolidation among public sector institutions.<<

Right, since the only way the last wave of consolidation worked was the government dictating it. The biggest limit to further consolidation is geographic practicality. Instead of voluntary consolidation among public sector institutions (except perhaps in some urban areas where they are close to each other), the only way consolidation is going to be practical is to mix institutions regardless of their original charter. That is, for example, a struggling national college or faculty might be consolidated with a public institution. Or a private university that provides technical or vocational programs might be fitted into a science faculty at a national university. Or national, public and private universities might cooperate to provide more courses and programs without expanding costs.

The Japan full report can be found at this address:


A Japanese language article about the report can be found here:


A country background report on Japan is available here:


A note of warning about using OECD online resources and reports. The OECD's many publications online are not very well organized for easy indexing or search. Also, their huge PDFs, if they load into your browser can really bog your computer down. So be careful; it's better to attempt them as downloads and then open them outside your usual browser in a PDF reading program, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If nothing else, the OECD is WORDY. A summary report of highlights typically comes in at 100 pages with lots of graphics. Be careful and good luck.

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