9 July 2017
by Futao Huang

Public versus private: university leadership in Japan

Futao Huang says that calls for Japan’s national universities to adopt more marketised leadership strategies have so far gone unheeded in Times Higher Education.

As the university environment has become more competitive and challenging, the leadership of universities has been increasingly strengthened. The administration and the governance of universities have been particularly affected by the market in recent years, and Japan is no exception to this change.

Since Japan’s national universities – institutions established, funded and administered by the country’s Ministry of Education – became corporatised in 2004, they have been required to introduce management techniques based on private-sector concepts, to implement top-down management by a board of directors, and to improve processes for selecting the university president (through the inclusion of external experts on the selection panel). In short, the demographic profile of national university corporation leaders is being reshaped. There is an expectation now that presidents of national universities show leadership similar in style to their private university counterparts.

However, my recent study suggests that differences in the personal characteristics of leaders belonging to the two sectors are still considerable. More importantly, these differences are caused by several important factors that at first glance appear irrelevant to the corporatisation of national universities. They include the legacy of Japanese higher education’s past; the results of national policies and higher education reforms since the Second World War; the characters and missions of the two sectors; and the division of labour between the two sectors in the national higher education system.

My study looked at the demographic profiles of university presidents collected from the websites of 86 national universities, 604 private universities and other publicly available sources in June 2015. By gender, presidents are overwhelmingly male. The average ages of presidents from the two sectors are similar (65 and 68), but there is greater variety in the private sector, with ages ranging from 49 to 88, compared with 54 to 74 in national universities.

This is because private universities have more freedom and authority to recruit and appoint their leaders. So long as a president is accepted by a board of trustees and is competent in administering universities, he or she can maintain his or her position without any age limitation. By contrast, in the national sector, in most cases, presidents are expected to retire at the age of 65.

The different missions of the two sectors have had significant impacts on the disciplinary backgrounds of university leaders. In Japan, the national sector provides students with general and professional education, especially in subjects such as medicine, engineering and science. In contrast (excepting a few leading private universities), the vast majority of private institutions are involved in instructional activities in the humanities and the social sciences at an undergraduate level.

Correspondingly, by discipline, the largest percentage of national university presidents come from medicine (42 per cent), followed by engineering (24 per cent) and science (11 per cent). Although many private university presidents also have a degree in medicine, the proportion is smaller (24 per cent of the total), with engineering and literature next (16 per cent), followed by economics (13 per cent).

In the historic former imperial national universities, three presidents studied medicine, three have a science background, and one an engineering background. In contrast, in the 10 leading private universities, only one president comes from engineering, with three having backgrounds in economics and business, two in literature, and the remaining four in the humanities and the social sciences.

The functional stratification of the two sectors has also given rise to obvious differences in the professional characteristics of university leaders. Since the late 19th century, when Japan established its modern higher education system modelled on Western patterns, the country’s national universities have been expected to facilitate the advancement of basic and applied scientific research, some of which is large-scale (with substantial funding, often supported by the national budget). A huge number of national universities remain more prestigious and are the centres of most graduate work at the PhD level.

In the Academic Ranking of World Universities and the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, the Japanese universities that feature in the top 100 are national (the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University).

This difference between private and national is reflected in the academic backgrounds of university leaders: 87 per cent of national university presidents – but only 70 per cent of private university presidents – have doctoral degrees; 38.6 per cent of national presidents – but only 5.9 per cent those at private universities – graduated from their current university. In addition, far more national than private university presidents received their degrees from national universities (46.5 per cent compared with 25.8 per cent) and conduct research abroad (33.7 per cent compared with 7.9 per cent).

A huge amount of private universities’ revenue is dependent on tuition charges and fees. The operation and management of the private sector is more market-oriented, and individual universities tend to open up their posts to external competition. This is reflected by the fact that the proportion of presidents with a non-academic background in the private sector is much higher than that of the national sector. Many private university presidents were previously employed in industry or were CEOs of large companies, but such non-academic experiences are not apparent in the cases of national university presidents.

In conclusion, the corporatisation of national universities in 2004 appears to have brought about very few changes to the demographic profile of national university leaders. Most national universities are still dominated by researchers or professors with a tremendously high academic credibility. Without change, it will be extremely difficult for individual national universities to fulfil government expectations of establishing new governance arrangements based on market mechanisms and adopting the same management techniques as private institutions.