Japan has embraced a Chinese-style strategy of backing its winners as a scheme to enhance its top universities gathers steam.
In the spring, the Japanese Education Ministry added two names to its Designated National Universities programme, which is designed to boost the international competitiveness of its top-flight institutions by freeing them from the shackles of the country’s sometimes stifling regulation.
Nagoya University and Tokyo Institute of Technology have joined the three original institutions – Tokyo, Tohoku and Kyoto universities – which gained DNU status last year. The ministry’s statement instructs the five universities to compete with the best in the world, unchained from the “domestic competitive framework” and given more flexibility “to invest in businesses that utilise research results”.
Jenny Corbett, a visiting professor with the University of Tokyo, said that the programme was a response to Japan’s decline in international university rankings and a funding environment constrained by the country’s falling population and depleted tax take.
“The idea is that you need to focus attention on institutions with the potential to climb the rankings,” said Professor Corbett, inaugural Rio-Tinto chair for the Foundation for Australia-Japan Studies.
“But you need to push them to raise their games. It’s not about putting government money in. It’s about telling them to go out and build research collaborations, find corporate and other sources of research funding and play the international game.”
The scheme, based around compact-style agreements between the universities and the ministry, has elicited starkly different plans at the five universities. Nagoya, for example, is setting up a University of California-style system with nearby universities, which retain their autonomy but present a united front in bids for external funds.
Kyoto’s plans include boosting revenue by creating three firms to undertake consulting, technology transfer and venture support, overseen by a dedicated holding company.
Kent Anderson, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Western Australia, said that the DNU was the latest in “a very conscious push by the public servants to make universities more efficient and international”.
Professor Anderson said that it had emerged from previous schemes such as the 2009 Global 30 programme, which fostered English-language degrees at 13 universities, and the 2014 Top Global University Project, designed to boost performance in the rankings. But the DNU is not directly about league tables, he said.
“It’s trying to deal with finance pressures to allow those top five universities to have more autonomy, which then allows them to have greater financial flexibility – and should hopefully address the rankings.”
Professor Corbett said that the DNU was part of a global trend where higher education bureaucracies focused their efforts on a handful of top performers, exemplified by China’s intensive funding of universities such as Peking and Tsinghua.
“There’s a tension between supporting champions and a broader, more politically acceptable strategy of making all your universities as good as they can be,” she said. “That debate has gone on forever, but currently the swing is towards supporting champions because of the weight that everybody puts on international rankings.”