Universities struggle to live up to Japan’s research ambitions

All eyes are on Tohoku University and its grandiose future plans as excellence initiative gets under way, but critics question whether goals are achievable

July 2, 2024
A sumo grand champion is forced down the ring by balancing on the edge of it to illustrate Universities struggle to live up to Japan’s research ambitions
Source: AFP / Getty Images

Japan’s universities are struggling to fulfil the government’s vision for science as a landmark excellence initiative gets under way, experts have said.

Tohoku University has been formally approved as the first to access the country’s ¥10 trillion (£49 billion) university fund. To be eligible for the initiative, first announced in 2022, universities had to submit details of how they would strengthen their research and drive innovation. 

The scheme, based on an endowment seeded from the sale of gold reserves and public debt financing, is designed to restore the nation’s place in global academic rankings and bridge funding gaps with other countries.

However, of the 10 universities that initially submitted proposals for the scheme, only three advanced to the second stage of review, including Tokyo and Kyoto. Only Tohoku made it to the final stage, and should receive about ¥10 billion in the coming year, with future subsidies calculated annually.

Academics agreed that Tohoku’s experience in strategic planning, as well as its ability to unite students and staff around a common goal, meant it was able to produce a strong application.

“The organisational culture to support the university leadership as a university-wide community is relatively strong through the experience of big crises,” said Akiyoshi Yonezawa, a professor and vice-director of Tohoku’s international strategy office, speaking in his capacity as a higher education consultant and referring to the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and the Covid-19 pandemic. 

But scholars have warned that the university may have been overambitious, setting wide-ranging goals, including increasing almost tenfold the number of publications it produces that reach the top 10 per cent of highly cited articles.

“These targets are too ambitious, and I don’t think they are achievable,” said Tanaka Hideaki, a professor in Meiji University’s Graduate School of Governance Studies. “Each faculty of Tohoku University didn’t know [of] such targets before Tohoku was selected, because their executive didn’t consult with each faculty.

“In other words, faculties didn’t commit [to] achieving research targets.”

Other goals include recruiting more international students and increasing research funding from private companies more than tenfold. Futao Huang, a professor in Hiroshima University's Research Institute for Higher Education, argued that the latter goal would likely require “further refinement and deeper strategic planning”.

Naoto Ohtake, president of the Institute of Science Tokyo, which will open its doors in the autumn following a merger between two existing institutions, confirmed plans to reapply to the fund, and other universities are expected to follow suit. 

“The selection of Tohoku University as the first case will have a significant impact on the universities applying in the second round,” said Professor Yonezawa. “The risk lies in the possible competition of elaborate business plans with unfoundedly ambitious performance targets.”

Professor Tanaka argued that, while Tohoku has a strong executive leadership team, other universities that take a more “bottom-up” approach to decision-making may struggle to produce a convincing application.

And Professor Huang said the requirements set out by the initiative put “unprecedented demands on universities” and agreed that other institutions “may lack the comprehensive preparation, clear strategic planning, and demonstrable research impact required to meet these high standards”.

However, he said, while the criteria may be “challenging”, they were “necessary to drive substantial and impactful changes”. 

Nonetheless, he conceded, “it may be worthwhile to consider if the criteria could be adjusted to encourage more universities to strive for and achieve these ambitious goals without compromising the fund’s integrity”.


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