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Editorial: Japan's private universities must embrace governance reform following scandals

How can transparency in the organizational management of universities be increased while retaining respect for their autonomy? This is a crucial moment for the reform of private higher education institutions in Japan.

    Following a series of scandals at private universities, an expert panel of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology has compiled a reform plan aiming to strengthen the governance of school corporations.

    The plan would designate boards of trustees as the highest decision-making bodies of such institutions instead of boards of directors, with every trustee hailing from outside the educational institution. Trustees' voting rights would extend to budgets and business plans, and they would also have a say in the selection of directors and other school officials.

    The plan underscores the need for information disclosure. It urges institutions to actively disclose to the public financial information, business reports, and plans for the appointment of directors, among other information.

    Private schools, however, have strongly resisted the move, saying it would be difficult for a board consisting of external members alone to make managerial decisions pertaining to education and research. A concrete design for the proposal is consequently expected to be carried over to next year.

    Under the current system, the board of trustees serves only as an advisory body to the head of the board of directors. It is also common for lecturers and others affiliated with the educational institutions to double as directors or trustees. It has accordingly been pointed out that the system of checks is not functioning sufficiently.

    In actual fact, there has been a stream of cases where it has not been possible to prevent rampant behavior by the head of the board or other directors -- such as with Tokyo Medical University's rigging of entrance exams, and the breach of trust case at Nihon University. There is no doubt that enhanced oversight of management is essential.

    Among private schools, however, there are concerns that external opinions could go as far as to sway the direction of the education and research they aim to provide.

    Governance of social welfare corporations and public interest incorporated foundations has been cited as a model for reform of educational institutions. At those bodies, directors and workers are banned from doubling as trustees.

    Universities, however, are educational institutions designed to cultivate human resources based on the spirit of their founding. There is a need to respect the individuality they have cultivated. It is also necessary to secure a system under which the opinions of students, who should be valued the most, are reflected in management.

    Private universities receive generous tax incentives and private school subsidies from the central government. Making their management sound is a social responsibility. However, it is difficult to do this by relying on outside power alone.

    Universities must first demonstrate their self-cleansing ability and stance of boosting governance, and government reforms should back those efforts up.

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