Japan's Government wants higher education to be more commercially focused, but pursuit of that goal is putting a strain on academics and darkening career prospects for young researchers. Nobuko Hara reports. Japan's state-funded national universities, which have been reeling from sharp cuts in research funding, are under pressure to reduce the head count of faculty members as the Government pushes for further cost cutting.
The Government, which is keen to promote globally competitive science and technology research that has immediate commercial benefit, has awarded strategic grants to a number of high-profile scientists and engineers at top institutions. "Our policy is to promote research that will immediately benefit industry," confirms an Education Ministry official.
The Government's push for a 5 per cent reduction in personnel costs at Japan's 87 national universities will not result in immediate job losses because the cuts will be realised through attrition over a few years. However, a hiring freeze and a temporary halt to promotions have seriously undermined career prospects for young researchers - and could cause staff shortages even at well-funded research labs, academics say.
"As I can't create new senior positions, I can't hire more post-doctorate researchers (when there is no prospect for their promotion)," said Masayoshi Esashi, who heads a cutting-edge semiconductor research team specialising in microsensors and mechanics at Tohoku University, 350km north east of Tokyo.
Yet Professor Esashi's is exactly the type of industry-focused research the Government is keen to promote. He is atypical in the elitist world of Japanese academe, where most scholars, particularly at better-funded national universities, have long enjoyed an ivory tower-like existence.
The financially driven reform, which was launched three years ago with an annual 1 per cent cut in subsidies, has hit the most vulnerable and, in some sense, the most important, part of the sector - the future generation of academics. At the same time, the Education Ministry's emphasis on commercial and societal relevance has marginalised research in traditional disciplines such as history, literature and philosophy, academics say.
Sixty per cent of the funding for Professor Esashi's semiconductor lab comes from 30 corporations, among them Toyota, Pioneer and Ricoh, with each firm contributing about Y3 million (£13,000) annually, he said. His unit makes a minimal call on public funds - just 40 per cent of it is university-funded.
"Some people argue that I am concerned only with industrial needs, but I believe linking these needs with university research is an important way of contributing to the future generation," he said.
The professor, who has won a string of prizes including the 2004 Education Minister's Prize, was recently awarded nearly Y300 million in a Government special grant that was shared with nine other research teams.
"As the Government faces severe fiscal deficits, instead of spreading limited resources thinly and widely, it is more effective to channel them strategically to key areas that benefit society," said Yuko Harayama, adviser to the president of Tohoku University and a member of the Council for Science and Technology Policy headed by the Prime Minister, Yasuo Fukuda.
On the recommendation of the council, whose members included business leaders as well as academics, the Government (under the previous Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe) last year approved a Y25 trillion five-year budget for research in the fields of life science, information technology, the environment, nanotechnology and materials, Professor Harayama said.
About 10 per cent of this five-year budget will be disbursed as research grants, primarily on science, by the Education Ministry on the recommendations of its advisory bodies, academics say.
"We want to establish a handful of world-class universities," Professor Harayama confirms. ( The Times Higher 's global rankings for 2006 includes 20 Japanese institutions in the top 200, with Tokyo the highest ranked in 19th place.)
However, grants for big projects are not what Professor Esashi is looking for.
"I'd like to keep my lab at a manageable size without overloading it with large equipment," he said. "It's more useful to have a smaller grant."
In any case, hiring new researchers for such major projects is no easy task, particularly in light of the new government policy that in effect forces universities to hire research assistants only on three-year contracts.
Like most Japanese academics, 58-year-old Professor Esashi began his academic career as a research assistant at his alma mater immediately after getting his PhD, nearly three decades ago. He moved up the ladder to an assistant professorship in 1981, aged 32, and to professor nine years later. Under the new policy, however, he cannot promise new researchers job security, let alone career prospects. Moreover, he said, "As we don't have open and flexible labour markets in Japan, it would be difficult to find talented young researchers" for contract positions. The professor is happy to recruit overseas, but this is made more challenging by the requirement that research assistants must speak Japanese.
The Government this year has also altered the job description of senior research assistants; they have been assigned teaching responsibilities but without a pay increase.
"The idea was to raise assistants' status by giving them greater responsibility, but I'm not sure if it's going have the intended effect," said an assistant professor at Tokyo Gakugei University who asked to remain anonymous.
A 35-year-old research assistant at the Earthquake Prediction Institute of Tokyo University, who did not wish to be named, said his workload had increased considerably. However, he was more concerned about young researchers who will henceforth be hired on a lower pay scale - with no guarantee of a permanent position.
This prestigious institute, which plays a central role in tremor predictions in the earthquake-prone archipelago, operates on a Y1.5 billion annual budget. However, the institute's 32 research assistants were recently told that only one third will have a chance of moving up the ladder, the researcher said.
Not surprisingly, criticism is mounting against the Government's subsidy cuts and grant allocation - not to mention the new hiring policy.
"Unfortunately, the council's policy has created disparity within a university," Professor Harayama said. "Non-science departments are having an especially tough time."
Hiroaki Ozawa, professor of modern European history at Chiba University, concurs. He cited his own research funds, which have shrunk dramatically in recent years. "But postdoctorate researchers are hardest hit, so I have to use my reduced funds to help them out as well," he said.
One assistant professor at Niigata University who has asked to remain anonymous criticised the criteria for the Government's grant allocation - which, he said, favours senior academics at the expense of early-career researchers. "There is little point providing funding to well-established academics. It's more important to give it to younger researchers who might be on the brink of a major breakthrough," he said.
Independent sources of research funds are rare in Japan. When national universities were denationalised in April 2004, restrictions on fundraising were lifted. Only a handful of top universities, however, most notably Tokyo, have capitalised on this. On top of the 87 national universities, there are more than 600 private and provincial universities, many under even greater financial strain, but only a few have succeeded in fundraising.
Tokyo University, an institution that enjoys unrivalled prestige in Japan, is confident of raising at least Y10 billion over the next two years, although it is unlikely that any of it will to go to researchers.
The university's president, Hiroshi Komiyama, is intent on using the endowment to strengthen his institution's international profile by forging strategic alliances with top universities in Europe, America and elsewhere Asia. He underlined his commitment this year with the announcement that Tokyo would build new accommodation for overseas scholars. Tokyo's international component is low: figures from 2005 show that only 1.4 per cent of its researchers, 11.7 per cent of postgraduates and 1.6 per cent of undergraduates are foreign nationals.
All foreign scholars at Tokyo are on three-year non-renewable contracts, according to Gaynor Sekimori, a British assistant professor at Tokyo University's Institute of Oriental Culture. Professor Komiyama seems unlikely to change this practice, particularly given the new hiring policy.
"Universities have to offer tenure positions if they want to attract top- class foreign academics," Dr Sekimori said.
Equally, young Japanese researchers must have job security and funding, academics say - especially if the Government's objective is to develop vibrant and globally competitive universities.
- There are 745 universities in Japan - 87 are national, 76 are regional institutions financed by regional governments, and 582 are private.
- The country has about 2.51 million undergraduates; 47.2 per cent of the Japanese population enters higher education.
- In 2006, Tokyo University's total revenue was Y184.6 billion, of which 49 per cent came from government subsidies and 29 per cent from tuition fees and its hospital revenues. The remainder was was provided by special research grants and donations.
- Tokyo University's professors earn average annual salaries of Y12.05 million (£52,000) and research assistants Y7 million.
- Universities employ 167,648 faculty members and 188,893 non-faculty members.
- On current trends Japan's population will fall to 100 million by 2050, down from 128 million today.