Can Japan’s ¥10 trillion excellence drive transform its research?

Scholars warn that Tokyo’s cash injection will reward the few over the many, pushing top institutions closer to industry at the expense of basic research, social sciences and humanities

October 4, 2022
Godzilla head is displayed during the official unveiling ceremony in Tokyo to illustrate Can Japan’s ¥10tn excellence drive revamp its research?
Source: Getty

As Japan’s landmark excellence initiative takes shape, scholars have expressed concern over how the scheme will change the higher education sector – questioning whether it will do more harm than good.

Earlier this year, the country’s legislature approved a ¥10 trillion (£64 billion) endowment fund designed to restore the nation’s place in global academic rankings and to bridge funding gaps with other countries. The Japanese government planned to sell off gold reserves and use public debt financing to raise seed money for the fund which, once operational, will outweigh Harvard University’s $53.2 billion (£49 billion) endowment and – although it is a one-off initial investment – dwarf UK Research and Innovation’s £7.9 billion annual budget.

Meant to create “International Research Universities of Excellence”, the fund is expected to generate roughly ¥300 billion in annual profits from 2024. Each year, ¥20 billion will go towards supporting students, with the remaining ¥280 billion invested in a handful of universities, with a “few” initially selected, according to the government.

Under a proposal currently being considered, universities participating in the scheme would be expected to gain “global visibility” by developing new academic fields and promoting independent research, attracting young scholars from Japan and abroad. They should also generate knowledge to tackle “global issues” such as carbon neutrality and develop entrepreneurs “active in a wide range of industries”.

Many questions remain over how exactly the fund will work in practice. But already, some scholars predict it could reshape Japanese academia – if perhaps not in the way policymakers intend.

Miho Funamori, an associate professor in university management at the National Institute of Informatics, believed the initiative could “fundamentally change” higher education, pushing universities closer to industry.

“There’s a risk this all doesn’t go well and it might ruin the academic sector,” she told Times Higher Education.

Under the scheme, a select few universities will secure a huge amount of money – roughly 10 times the amount available to institutions under the “Top Global University Project”, a competitive funding scheme started in 2014. Unlike typical research grants, such government funding doesn’t stipulate that universities must use the funding for particular projects, allowing them greater flexibility in which areas to boost, at least in theory.

But, in return, participating institutions must agree to deliver 3 per cent annual growth in the value of their research activities. Academics speaking to THE said that universities would have little recourse but to turn to the business sector to meet this requirement. While such an arrangement would deepen the institutional purse, many fear it would run counter to academia’s mandate to conduct basic research.

“Industries should care about R&D which is practical and [the] academic sector should care about fundamental theories and exploratory themes. If you push the universities to create so much money, a university might become like a research institution within a company that has profit-making as their ultimate goal,” said Dr Funamori.

Still, she was hopeful that the scheme could be a force for good, with the potential to foster “a new university model” wherein universities work more closely with industry to solve societal problems.

“If the contribution from industries can be successfully converted to scholarships for people wishing to learn, then there’s a chance you don’t need to raise tuition so much. Of course, it means the boundaries between universities, industry and society become much more blurred,” she said.

More funding will be welcomed by universities that are successful in their bids after long-running budget cuts that have contributed to Japanese universities slipping down the rankings over the past decade, both globally and relative to its rising Asian neighbours.

In 2011, five Japanese institutions were in the THE World University Rankings top 200. In the 2022 rankings, there were only two. In 2015, the University of Tokyo topped the THE Asia Rankings, while Kyoto University also made the top 10. But, by 2022, Tokyo had dropped to sixth place, surpassed by institutions from mainland China, Hong Kong and Singapore. It had also become the only Japanese university in the Asian top 10.

But Akira Mori, a professor in Yokohama National University’s Faculty of Environment and Information Sciences, was concerned by the message the government was sending by concentrating such a large investment in so few universities.

“Many small and regional universities have no juice to [compete for] this new opportunity,” he said, adding that many were in “desperate” need of funding.

While the government has also set up a concurrent fund meant to boost regional universities, academics pointed out that it pales in comparison with the excellence initiative, with a fraction of the funding.

Already, it appears that few Japanese institutions are seriously pursuing the excellence scheme – an indication that doing so might not be feasible for many in the sector.

Five of 43 universities polled by the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun earlier this year indicated that they might apply. Nagoya University, Tohoku University and Waseda University told the paper that they intended to submit applications while Osaka University and the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology said they were considering it.

While Professor Mori said that the scheme could be “a great opportunity for us, as long as it will provide a variety of opportunities for people who are in different regions and universities”, he did not feel particularly optimistic.

“The government made many mistakes in terms of support for universities for the last two decades. That is why many are sceptical,” he said.

Many academics also expressed concern that the emphasis on institutional growth will put more focus on applied sciences, leading to larger departments in fields including engineering, medicine and pharmaceuticals at the expense of shrinking humanities and social sciences.

Takakazu Yamagishi, director of the Center for International Affairs at Nanzan University in Nagoya, said that the scheme would allow the institutions taking part to start spin-offs and innovate in new ways.

“Yes, they will have big money,” he said. But he was less confident that the money would be put to best use, with universities motivated to invest in projects that would “easily make a profit”.

“The question is whether it is what the universities really want to do, and more importantly, whether it is what academia should be about,” he said.

He also feared that, with deeper coffers, participating institutions would snap up top researchers from “smaller, less resource-rich universities”, furthering brain drain within the sector.

Kazuki Tsuji, professor of evolutionary ecology at the University of the Ryukyus, a public university on the island of Okinawa, was also critical of the government’s approach. Although he emphasised he was not against a scheme to help top institutions, he said that in a landscape of heavy cutbacks, funding a few top institutions was unacceptable.

“Japan’s public universities are collapsing due to the Japanese government’s ultra-austerity policies that have been in place for more than two decades,” he said.

He blamed excessive “selection and concentration” at public universities. Starting in 2014, Japan’s 86 national universities were semi-privatised into “corporations” and the government started gradually decreasing their budgets by 1 per cent each year.

“In all fields, posts, research funds and time have been cut…people [can] no longer afford to do research. Instead, the Japanese government is giving huge sums of money to only a few fields and people,” he said.

He warned that taking such a “shallow” approach to basic science would result in “very few promising breakthroughs” in the future. Instead, to revive Japan’s sciences, Professor Tsuji believed that the government must ensure that basic expenses are covered, providing funding for universities more broadly in line with spending in the 1980s.

“It is fundamentally wrong to over-introduce ‘selection and concentration’ in a world where we do not know what will be successful,” he said.

But even if Japan’s government moves to alleviate the many concerns over funding to sciences and inequity among institutions and departments within them, the impact of its excellence scheme faces one more substantial hurdle. It remains to be seen whether the fund can generate enough money.

Matthew Wilson, dean and president of the Tokyo-based Temple University, Japan Campus, said that the approach “seems very similar” to the endowment structure used by American universities, where “in theory, money is raised, it is invested, and then the proceeds from the investments are used by the university. In theory the corpus never goes down.” 

But he cautioned that theory does not necessarily translate to reality; continued greater returns are not a given.

“There is always the danger that the fund will not generate sufficient returns or that it could actually lose money. In such instance, the government would need to decide whether it is willing to supplement shortfall using taxpayer dollars,” he said.

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