By Yohei Fukumoto and Sachiko Asakuno / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WritersThe Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry has been proposing a series of reform plans to call for cooperation and integration between universities. In April, Nagoya University and Gifu University began discussions with an eye toward the integration of the university corporations that operate the two universities. Against the background of a shrinking population of 18-year-olds, university realignment movements are now accelerating.
“It is important for multiple universities to share strategies for education, research and internationalization to strengthen their functions,” Nagoya University President Seiichi Matsuo said, stressing the importance of the integration of university corporations in the opening statement during the first meeting of Nagoya University and Gifu University on April 18. The two universities discussed the integration of their respective university corporations.
The two universities envision a framework in which their names as well as their departments and campuses will be kept intact while both universities will come under the umbrella of an educational corporation still to be formed, tentatively named the Tokai national university institution. Under the framework, they intend to make management more efficient and improve the quality of education. They will hold meetings about once a month and aim to reach an agreement by the end of the current academic year.
Last October, the education ministry announced a proposal for a new system that would enable a single national university corporation to operate multiple national universities. The ministry aims to implement this system from the 2020 academic year. Nagoya University and Gifu University are the first universities to express their willingness to adopt the new system.
Behind the ministry’s proposal is the falling number of 18-year olds. According to the ministry, the figure, which had been hovering around 1.2 million since 2009, started to decline again this year. Among educators, this is called “the 2018 problem” and there is concern over its adverse impact on the management of universities.
The government’s dire fiscal straits are another factor. Operating subsidies paid to national universities dropped more than 10 percent from a total of ¥1.2415 trillion in fiscal 2004, when national universities were transformed into incorporated institutions.
Gifu University President Hisataka Moriwaki also expressed concern, saying, “University education will face difficult times, and national universities are no exception.”
However, integration is no simple task. Saitama University and Gunma University reached an agreement on their integration in 2002, but this plan was shelved after negotiations bogged down over the transfer of departments between the two universities.
Hirosaki University, Iwate University and Akita University also began discussions in 2002 with a view to their integration, which was not eventually realized.
If Nagoya University and Gifu University are integrated, their combined operating subsidies would be the fifth-largest among national universities after the University of Tokyo, Kyoto University, Tohoku University and Osaka University.
A Nagoya University official said, “There was strong opposition within our university to integration of our university corporation with Gifu’s, but we thought we have to do it with [how things will be] 10 years from now in mind.”
Transfer of departments
Last October, the ministry presented to a panel of the Central Council for Education a proposal that would enable the transfer of departments from one private university to another. The aim is to promote better management by allowing the sale of individual departments. In March, the ministry also announced a proposal for a new system that would enable national, public and private universities in regional areas to form a group and establish a new educational corporation to operate them in an integrated manner. This would enable cooperation across the “borders” between national, public and private universities, and allow students to take classes at other universities and use their facilities.
Another aspect of why the ministry announced a series of these reform plans is that they are measures to deal with the difficult financial situation of private universities. By transferring departments, a university can secure funds to operate for the time being. The grouping of national, public and private universities also serves as a safety net for students and faculty if one university goes under.
There are currently 86 national universities. There may be more universities in the future that follow the path taken by Nagoya University and Gifu University.
Prof. Motohisa Kaneko of the University of Tsukuba, who is well versed in the university educational system, said: “Hurdles are high for cooperation and integration, but it is difficult for all universities to survive under the current circumstances. Perhaps, universities will become polarized, with some seeking cooperation and integration, and others not.”
Bankruptcy harms students
In the past, there was a case in which a private university went bankrupt, forcing students to transfer to another university. In 2013, the education ministry issued a disbandment order to the educational corporation, which was operating the University of Creation in Takasaki, Gunma Prefecture, after it became unable to pay salaries to its faculty members due to its expansion policy.
“It changed my career path,” sighed a 26-year old woman, who was a junior at the university at the time of the bankruptcy. Hoping to become an opera singer, she was taking a vocal music course. From the start, there were rumors that the university’s financial condition was not good, and in the winter of her third year, she learned at an explanatory meeting held by the ministry that the university would be shut down. “I was more saddened than shocked that my university would disappear,” she said.
She then transferred to a university in Saitama Prefecture. However, due to a problem related to her credits, she was unable to take the vocal music course at the new university and ended up registering for a course different from the one she had hoped for. After graduation, she took jobs in fields such as the beauty business. “If I had continued to study vocal music, I might have had a different future,” she said.
Another woman in her late 20s, who transferred to another university, was forced to pay tuition for the second semester of her third year to both the University of Creation and the new university, which totaled more than ¥1 million. Her new university was far from home, so she rented an apartment and started living alone. “It was a burden on my parents as well, and I still cannot forgive [the bankruptcy],” she said angrily.
In fiscal 2017, the Tokyo-based Promotion and Mutual Aid Corporation for Private Schools of Japan checked three years worth of data on assets and liabilities at 662 educational corporations operating private universities and junior colleges, and found that 103, or about 16 percent, were facing financial difficulty. This was down 1.4 percentage points from their fiscal 2016 survey, but the number of educational corporations without financial problems also dropped 1.1 percentage points, with a growing number of corporations in the gray zone, where signs of financial deterioration were confirmed. In particular, small universities in regional areas are said to be facing financial difficulty, and it is feared that cases similar to that of the University of Creation may occur again.
The Japan Association of Private Universities and Colleges, which more than 120 private universities belong to, stressed in its recommendation announced on April 24, “Private universities need to proactively consider cooperation and integration.” It pressed universities to carry out reform with blunt wording. “Withdrawal” from operating universities was explicitly mentioned as an option.
At a press conference in Tokyo, Yuko Tanaka, an executive director of the association, who is also president of Hosei University, said: “Intercollegiate cooperation and integration are inevitable for regional universities. They must seriously consider which universities to cooperate with to be able to continue to provide good education.”