Japanese universities warm to industry

September 15, 1995

Japan's universities have traditionally kept their distance from the country's powerful and highly-successful business sector. With full enrolments and healthy bank balances there was often little need to look to big business for finance, expertise or custom.

Japanese academics have also been wary of the influence that the business sector might seek to exert on their affairs. The aims of academia, one professor recently declared, are very different from those of business.

Corporate Japan has a poor opinion of Japanese universities and many of the academics they employ. The most frequent criticism is that academics are firmly ensconced in ivory towers and often have little knowledge or experience of the outside world.

Academia's poor research facilities and a system geared towards communicating knowledge rather than encouraging creative thinking have hindered the development of closer relations with industry.

The best research is carried out in the huge laboratories operated by leading companies. University labs, which have only a fifth of the funds and support staff of company-run laboratories, often have poor facilities and reputations.

Even research facilities at the University of Tokyo, Japan's highest-ranked university, are frequently criticised for being shabby, underfunded and inadequate. But, confronted by falling rolls and incomes, universities are now seeking to fund research by seeking collaborative programmes with cash-rich industrial companies such as Hitachi and Toyota.

Many private universities, which account for two-thirds of Japan's 500 or so universities, are also seeking sponsorships, endowments and other funds from private business.

The ministry of education in Tokyo, which is responsible for the 96 national universities, has been trying to find ways of reducing the bureaucracy which discourages companies from making gifts to Japanese universities.

Some progress has been made and the huge Nippon Steel and NEC corporations recently provided funds to help establish a professorship at Tokyo University's research centre for advanced science and technology.

IBM Japan has sponsored a computer science professorship at Keio University, one of the top private universities. Outside contributors have also funded several chairs in the human science department.

The two universities in Tsukuba Science City, meanwhile, have been developing a number of collaborative projects involving researchers from academia, private companies and the state-run national research institutes.

Tsukuba's universities have also been trying to integrate general and specialised courses to produce graduates who meet the needs of modern industry.

At the end of last year a research organisation to promote links between industry, government and academia was established at Tsukuba University. The Tsukuba Advanced Research Alliance involves a new advanced research facility staffed by researchers from university laboratories, national institutes and private research laboratories. The institute will focus on seven broad research themes including multimedia information and biological control systems.

Kansai Science City, which is taking shape in the hills between Kyoto and Osaka in west Japan, is implementing plans for university-industry projects including institutes where researchers from different sectors work together.

Universities are seeking to offer more work-oriented graduate courses geared to the needs of companies who want to update their employees' knowledge and skills.

New courses are also being developed in response to the breakdown of the country's traditional lifetime employment practices which has led to job- hopping and workers looking for ways of improving academic credentials.

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