Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University


Notes from the President

Work Style Reform for University Staff And Administrators

Apr 6, 2021

* The content below was published in IDE-Modern Higher Education, no. 628, February–March 2021 (February 1, 2021).

1. Introduction

Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU) was launched by the Ritsumeikan Trust in 2000 as an international university where roughly half of the students and faculty are non-Japanese. Its international students consistently hail from roughly 90 countries and regions, and its international faculty members from over 20 countries and regions. Furthermore, over half of its Japanese faculty members have obtained academic degrees at overseas universities.

However, non-Japanese currently represent 15.5% of APU’s staff and administrators, who operate the university and function as a counterpart to the faculty; clearly, diversification here has stagnated. In the new AY2021–AY2030 Mid-term Plan formulated by the Ritsumeikan Trust, APU positioned the internationalization of its staff and administrators as one of the issues to address under university governance reform. While I realize that the countries or regions of origin of our staff and administrators are not the sole indicator of diversity, judging from the current composition of the university, APU cannot expect to achieve the substantial growth envisioned in the new Mid-Term Plan without fundamentally reforming the organization of its staff and administrators. While considering this current structure, I would like to discuss the topic of work style reform for these workers and the challenges ahead.

2. Current state of and issues surrounding work styles in Japan

Among the 37 members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Japan ranks 21st in terms of both work productivity per hour and work productivity per worker, falling below the OECD average by a wide margin (reference: International Comparison of Work Productivity in FY2019 by the Japan Productivity Center). In addition, Japan has consistently ranked at the bottom of the Group of Seven nations in terms of work productivity since 1970, the year from which data is available.

I would like to briefly address some historical reasons that have contributed to this situation. Japan achieved its post-war rapid economic growth by adopting a manufacturing-based factory model that was supported by an increase in the domestic population and benefited from the protective umbrella of the US during the Cold War. This business model was predicated on profit expansion through long working hours. To optimize Japanese society for the hours required in this model, Japanese women traditionally focused on household work and childcare, and systems such as spousal tax deductions and insurance were established to allow Japanese men to dedicate many hours to their work. The myth that children should be raised by their mother until the age of three to avoid adverse impact on their growth also emerged in this context. In addition, the population increase and rapid economic growth that emerged led to a range of labor practices that are peculiar to Japan including the bulk hiring of new college graduates, lifetime employment, the seniority-based wage system, and mandatory retirement age.

Today, however, the service industry accounts for over three quarters of Japan’s GDP, which means the manufacturing-based factory model is definitively a thing of the past, and social systems and work styles have reached a stage in which change is essential. In a society that is centered on the service industry, success is no longer a product of long working hours. Rather, it is the result of performance underpinned by ideas or innovation, which together contribute to improved efficiency. Scientific data has proven that continued long working hours lead to a reduction in productivity. Moving forward, Japanese organizations should build work environments that are highly conductive to performance, ideas, and innovation, while at the same time breaking away from the erroneous notion that long working hours are beneficial.

3. Diversity, innovation, and APU

As mentioned above, APU is distinguished by a highly diverse student body and faculty, which hail from many countries and regions around the world. Our staff also belong to the Ritsumeikan Trust, and many have work experience at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. Such staff often tell us, “We are often amazed by the opinions voiced and actions taken by APU students, which are quite different from those of students at a domestic university such as Ritsumeikan University,” and that, “APU’s faculty regards the university as an overseas university, and often bring up issues that would never be raised in the operation of a Japanese university.”

I believe this demonstrates that diversity is one factor that increases productivity. Efficient performance in a service industry stems from ideas and innovation, and these arise when knowledge combines with intellectual capacity. However, it is not necessarily true that only the latest knowledge leads to innovation. Previously assimilated knowledge can also be combined in different ways with intellectual capacity to produce ideas that drive innovation. This is the real reason why diversity is essential. When a group of people are brought up with a similar mindset and under the same social norms and systems, they tend to share similar knowledge. People with a similar knowledge base do not really have to stretch their intellectual capacity to understand one another; such an environment, therefore, is not conductive to innovation.

Another reason why diversity contributes to productivity lies in the transformation of the social environment. In our modern age characterized by globalization and the free movement of people, products, services, information, and money across borders, the manufacturing and service industries need to target the entire world as their market. With the rise of emerging markets, the purchasing power in society also continues to diversify. To cater to a market that comprises a diverse range of consumers, innovation produced by an equally diverse number of minds therefore becomes essential.

In light of the above, I believe that APU’s highly diverse environment incorporates mechanisms to produce human resources that will naturally create innovation tailored to modern society. One of our faculty members explains: We experience the activity of learning from others within a diverse and multicultural setting every day at APU. Here, learning is always accompanied by interaction with others. Classes use groupwork and discussions to draw students’ attention to differences with others. APU’s students hail from roughly 90 countries and regions, creating an environment in which it is natural for everyone to have different ideas and thought processes. As a result, students must learn to understand themselves and the world in relation to others.

By repeating the cycle of absorbing new knowledge and collaborating with others daily in an extremely diverse environment, APU students spontaneously train how to produce innovation.

Our first batch of students who joined the university in 2000, its inaugural year, are now full-fledged contributors to society in their forties. APU graduates are active in various positions around the world, and have recently produced a third minister. The institution has unveiled its APU2030 Vision centered on the theme: “APU Graduates possess the power to change our world.” I believe even small improvements to society through the efforts of our graduates around the world prove the innovation-through-diversity mechanism that is part of the school’s DNA.

4. Work style reform for university staff and administrators

As noted above, work styles closely intertwine with the current state of a society. While in modern-day Japan, the social landscapes which formed the basis for its work styles have undergone dramatic changes, the country’s systems have remained rigid, giving rise to major inconsistencies. To resolve such problems, it is important that organizations as a whole realize that the purpose of their employees’ labor needs to transform to match the changes in their social environment.

In this context, I would like to reflect next on the state of universities and their staff and administrators. Universities can be described as organizations that inherently possess a high degree of diversity. Faculty members each have their own field of specialty, and have acquired the logic and advanced knowledge that enable them to freely engage in discussion with researchers in other disciplines. Universities also have a highly fluid labor market as they typically bring together faculty members with diverse career backgrounds, including research and work experience at different universities.

Moreover, universities can be regarded as the ultimate service industry in which innovation is of paramount importance. The innovation spawned from a diverse faculty is primarily expressed in research fields, but passionate faculty members may also bring this innovation into the classroom. However, examples of such innovation at the level of university administration and operation are much harder to find. I believe the purpose of university staff should be to foster such innovation.

University staff and administrators have traditionally been asked to perform the necessary administration work to operate the university, and are therefore sometimes referred to as administrative staff. However, clearly the purpose of the work performed by such staff has changed. At present, university staff are expected to possess professional expertise in a range of work categories, including student, research, and education support. University staff and administrators act as a catalyst for innovation in areas such as education, research, social contribution, and university operation by leveraging professional expertise and collaborating with a diverse faculty.

Work style reform should not only be the starting point for a discussion on organizational theory—involving correcting long working hours, establishing equal pay for equal work, removing age barriers, eliminating gender discrimination, and achieving a life-work balance—and thus become its own goal (although such discussion is of course incredibly important), but it should also consider all positions.

5. Work style reform for APU staff and administrators

The 225 staff currently employed by APU can be categorized as follows (as of May 1, 2020).

(1) Non-Japanese staff: 15.5%
(2) TOEIC score of 800 or above: 67.7% * Excluding administrative staff on contracts for which English proficiency is not required.
(3) Staff with degree from overseas university: 6.2% * Japanese staff only
(4) Staff with a master’s degree or higher: 8%

While each of these ratios may be high compared with domestic universities, they still fall short for an international university where half the student body and faculty are non-Japanese and which looks to produce innovation in various fields.

The University Senate Meeting—the highest decision-making body of APU—is composed of 16 representatives of the different departments, centers, and division. Only four of these members are non-Japanese. I believe the university has yet to reach an administrative organization in which each section can operate under a non-Japanese representative. APU staff are expected to enhance their professional skills even more so they can operate an international university as a counterpart to the faculty.

Now that we’ve clarified the purpose of our staff and administrators, we can determine what measures they need to implement. These include (1) expanding the hiring of non-Japanese to create an organization that can better understand its target market consisting of faculty (its counterpart) and students (or potential applicants), (2) continuing to produce various ideas by freely exchanging opinions with a diverse range of human resources, and (3) acquiring the professional skills to leverage those ideas in university policy, systems, and operation.

The university in turn needs to establish an environment and systems that foster these dynamics. This involves reducing long working hours by automating administrative tasks, eliminating unnecessary office work, establishing training systems to strengthen expertise, expanding the hiring of staff with master’s or higher degrees, establishing support systems for staff to acquire master’s degrees, improving processes to realize policies, transitioning from membership-type to job-type work styles*, and introducing remote work, leave of absence, and other systems. All these initiatives are included in APU’s Mid-Term Plan starting from AY2021.

As a group of professionals, the APU staff and administrators have been responsible for the launch and operation of a university where half of the student body and faculty are non-Japanese, a feat initially thought impossible. They have demonstrated agility and flexibility in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic by undertaking swift and flexible initiatives such as establishing the foundations for full-scale online learning via a direct agreement with US-based Zoom Video Communications, and by promptly allowing staff to bring their children to work while elementary and junior high schools were closed. I am convinced the APU staff can achieve the work style reforms necessary to thrive in the post-COVID world, which will enable APU to grow into a true international university.

*Note: Unlike many other countries, Japan until now has favored membership-type employment. In other words, instead of hiring employees based on specialized skills and experience, companies hire new graduates as members of the company where they receive on the job training and can be transferred to different positions and locations based on the needs of the company. The systems of the seniority-based wage system and life-long employment form the basis of this workstyle. https://www.gakujo.ne.jp/2022/contents/japanjobs/en/shushoku/

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