University governance in Japan: Reluctant reformers or dedicated followers of fashion?

Author: Don Westerheijden

Christensen (2011) maintained that ‘Japan joined the countries implementing a NPM-like university reform rather late, reflecting its status as a “reluctant reformer”.’ Indeed, the major change to university governance came only in 2004, when NPM had been around in higher education since a quarter of a century. Was Japan then just a dedicated follower of fashion?

The 2004 reform meant that all public, national higher education institutions were transformed from public-sector agencies under control of the ministry of education (usually abbreviated to MEXT) to National University Corporations, operating autonomously, with much-increased authority over personnel, real estate and redistribution of funds. These are the core areas of what Berdahl (1990) called procedural autonomy. In contrast, there was no increase of substantive autonomy, because study programmes still needed prior recognition by MEXT (Oba, 2013). Moreover, after initial enthusiasm that Japan’s leading universities would ‘inevitably become, more independent of government, more market oriented and responsive to society and industry’ (Huang, 2006, p. 12), it appeared that MEXT retained much control over universities, mainly by requiring them to get the ministry’s agreement on six-year Mid-Term Plans, and by monitoring implementation of those plans annually (Christensen, 2011). So maybe Japan was a reluctant follower of fashion?

In that vein, Shattock wrote that the 2004 governance changes were a ‘classical example’ of isomorphic ‘application of New Public Management approaches across government, rather than … an intrinsic concern to find a better way to manage the higher education system to further its academic and intellectual interests’ (Shattock, 2014, p. 184).

I beg to differ. I find the sociological neo-institutionalist explanations shallow: as soon as we have established isomorphism, we’re done.

One shortcoming is epistemological, because the opposition between Christensen’s term reform and fashion goes deep. Reform implies that a policy is a vehicle to solve a perceived social problem. Fashion implies that policy is a symbolic act to gain legitimacy; choosing one policy or the other is following of the crowd, disregarding any possible differences in functionality. Fashion is isomorphism, the core term of sociological neo-institutionalism. Reform is associated with more economically-oriented explanations in which actors strive to maximise subjective expected utility, or something more concrete but basically operationalisations of subjective utility: profits, votes, or policy results. You might maintain that even maximising legitimacy fits the mould of subjective expected utility theories, but the point of sociologists is that actors do not make even approximate calculations of utility. They do something because that is how things ought to be done—because they are dedicated followers of fashion. It fits beautifully the western stereotype of Japan and other East Asian, collectivist cultures.

The other shortcoming is empirical: if isomorphism is all, why was this particular form of NPM chosen (colleagues like Ferlie et al. (2008) and Paradeise et al. (2009) clearly showed there are many varieties of NPM to choose from), with increased procedural autonomy but not increased substantive autonomy? And why then did MEXT take back control through the Mid-Term Plan procedures? Moreover, since 2012 plans have been aired in Japan for renewed or further increases in the autonomy of universities (Oba, 2013; Yonezawa, 2014). Isomorphism cannot explain this. There must be an inner rationality to the actors, I hypothesise, to make them do these things. Maybe the rationality is as limited as bureau politics, i.e. substituting one’s own credibility or career, which in organisational environments largely depends on the success of one’s organisational unit, for subjective expected utility. Yet maybe some people really see it as a reform to improve the excellence and efficiency of Japan’s universities.

After all, Japanese people can be as individualistic as any human being—just look at the quirky cos play clothes some choose to wear, against all fashion.

In sum: reluctant reformers make a good topic for research, dedicated followers of fashion are just a funny old pop song.


Berdahl, R. O. (1990). Academic freedom, autonomy and accountability in British universities. Studies in Higher Education, 15(2), 169-180. doi:10.1080/03075079012331377491

Christensen, T. (2011). University Governance Reforms: Potential Problems of More Autonomy? Higher Education: The International Journal of Higher Education and Educational Planning, 62(4), 503-517.

Ferlie, E., Musselin, C., & Andresani, G. (2008). The ‘Steering’ of Higher Education Systems: A Public Management Perspective. Higher Education, 56, 324-348.

Huang, F. (2006). Incorporation and University Governance: A Comparative Perspective from China and Japan. Higher Education Management and Policy, 18(2), 17. doi:10.1787/17269822

Oba, J. (2013). University Governance Reforms in Japan – Incorporation of national universities. RIHE International Seminar Reports, 19(71-97).

Paradeise, C., Bleiklie, I., Enders, J., Goastellec, G., Michelsen, S., Reale, E., & Westerheijden, D. F. (2009). Reform Policies and Change Processes in Europe. In J. Huisman (Ed.), International perspectives on the governance of higher education: Alternative frameworks for coordination (pp. 88-106). New York; London: Routledge.

Yonezawa, A. (2014). The Academic Profession and University Governance Participation in Japan: Focusing on the Role of Kyoju-kai. Educational Studies in Japan: International Yearbook, 8, 19-31.

About the author

Photo_Don_WesterheijdenDon Westerheijden is a senior research associate at CHEPS where he co-ordinates research on quality management whilst also co-ordinating and supervising Ph.D. students. Don researches and publishes internationally on quality assurance and accreditation in higher education and its impacts, comparative higher education (e.g., the Bologna Process, employability, and excellence in education), as well as transparency tools (classifications and rankings).


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