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A new national

role for universities,

but little funding

by Akiyoshi Yonezawa for University World News

A new world-class university policy was introduced in Japan in 2017. The government selected six out of 86 national universities to be Designated National Universities, all with long research traditions – this list includes the University of Tokyo, Kyoto University, Tohoku University, the Tokyo Institute of Technology, Nagoya University and Osaka University.

These chosen institutions have been given a ‘distinguished’ legal status, different from all other national universities that already experience significant advantages in national government funding – they are quite distinct from the 90 local public universities and 604 private universities in Japan.
Designated National Universities are expected to be competitive with leading universities worldwide. What then can the national government do for them and what are these selected universities expected to do?
Not the first attempt 
This is not the first attempt at creating world-class universities in Japan. In fact, Japan is recognised for having been actively engaged in world-class university policy through a series of governmental projects and excellence initiatives: for example, 21st Century Centres of Excellence (2002-09), Global Centres of Excellence (2007-14), Global 30 (2009-15) and the Top Global University Project (2014 onward).
In contrast with emerging institutions in neighbouring China, Singapore and South Korea, Japan’s flagship universities have gradually slipped down in the rankings over the past two decades. Two reasons are always highlighted: the slow pace of internationalisation of universities and society as a whole and the shortage of financial investment.
While the two first centres of excellence projects mentioned above were funded by direct investment to research clusters, impact was not significant, partly because the basic infrastructure of science and technology at Japanese universities had already been established before the launch of these projects, namely, in the 1990s after the country peaked economically.
From 2007, the World Premier International Research Center Initiatives targeted only a few research institutes with much more concentrated investments. It is still too early to measure the exact impact of these initiatives on research and universities and on the country as a whole.
The Global 30 project ultimately supported 13 universities because of policy changes after the financial crisis of 2008. The Top Global University Project now supports 13 universities in their efforts to be globally competitive and another 24 universities as leading examples of internationalisation.
These projects are not funding research excellence but are enhancing the internationalisation of universities through key performance indicators such as employing international researchers and enhancing the English language proficiency of students and staff.
When the Top Global University Project was launched in 2014, the government declared that the policy’s goal was to propel 10 Japanese universities into the top 100 in world rankings. Indeed, the profiles of flagship universities in Japan, for example, in terms of the proportion of international students and staff, appeared low in global university rankings and remain poor even now.
The slow internationalisation of Japanese universities largely reflects the slow internationalisation of the whole education system and of the labour market within this country.
At the core of national innovation policy 
The Japanese government is now trying to use research universities as a key driver of national economic development and promotes an integrated economic and financial policy linked with industrial innovation.
Top research universities are now attracting attention not only from the ministry of education, culture, sports, science and technology, but also from cabinet office departments such as the Council for Science, Technology and Innovation and the Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy.
Compared with previous excellence initiatives and internationalisation schemes, the selection of Designated National Universities focuses much more on an institution’s capacity to set a vision and plan and implement changes that will enable it to achieve world-leading status.
Applicant universities were asked to present a self-assessment of their strengths and weaknesses; of their achievement of goals based on benchmarks within good practice and performance measurement; of their strategies to implement leading research and human resource development; and of their contributions to the economy and to society by addressing global and national challenges.
The guidelines stipulated that the universities cover topics such as human resource acquisition and development, improvements to research capacity and university governance, strengthening financial foundations, international collaboration and links to the wider society.
Ask what you can do for your country
Takeshi Sasaki, chair of the Designated National Universities project review committee, has expressed concern about the vulnerable financial foundations of even top research universities in Japan.
His wish is to see public support expanded and assistance from society significantly increased, in particular through donations from the business community and individuals, with backing from the government.
However, in reality, the new ‘designated’ status does not automatically guarantee drastic financial advantages. The amount of public funding directly linked to the scheme constitutes only a small portion of the universities’ running costs, at around 0.2% of their annual income.
Rather, the government expects the selected universities to engage more actively in income generation from non-governmental sources, for instance, from philanthropic donations and university-industry cooperation.
The underlying message is that developing management capacity within universities is the only sustainable pathway for them to achieve world-class status, and that institutions are required to contribute directly to the development of the national knowledge economy.
Here, the government’s message to the universities seems to be: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”, as famously stated by United States President John F Kennedy in his 1961 inaugural address.
In that respect, the proposal and implementation of this particular scheme has stimulated a systemic discussion about how a university can establish, and contribute to, a virtuous circle between its development and its socio-economic impact.
In contrast to the officially expressed vision, cabinet level support for the policy appears to strengthen governmental intervention in university governance and management – adding contributions to economic development through industry relations and innovation to education and research as a core function of a university.
This new challenge for aspiring world-class universities – the expectation of generating their own income – appears to be a risky policy in light of the uncertainty surrounding the complex mechanism linking long-term knowledge activities at universities and industrial commercialisation.
Of particular note: the Japanese business environment is largely under the dominance of global enterprises typically based in the United States. It is becoming apparent that universities will have to struggle and fight to gain their financial autonomy and, ultimately, define their new identity.
Akiyoshi Yonezawa is professor and vice-director of the International Strategy Office at Tohoku University, Japan. E-mail: This article was first published in the current issue of International Higher Education.