Pressure from academics on Japan’s newly elected government is growing, calling for urgent and drastic reforms to boost the dwindling international status of the country’s universities and university research.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won the House of Representatives (lower house) elections last Sunday. The LDP has run Japan continuously since its inception in 1955. It advocates policies that focus on economic growth in close cooperation with top corporations, a mandate based on providing stability rather than creating impetus for change, which has won electoral support.
Jiro Hasumi, professor of political science at the national Kyushu University, noted: “Facing Kishida right now is the urgent need to support universities to meet demands for diversity and global challenges. But I don’t expect major reforms from the LDP, which continues to prioritise the domestic economy above other priorities.”
Among the top COVID-19 pandemic-related concerns voiced by universities is the need for additional funding to shore up research in STEM areas (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Experts have also long pointed out that support to improve lagging research activities in these fields is closely linked to Japan’s slow globalisation of its universities.
Monte Cassim, the newly elected president of Akita International University, northern Japan, pointed to important changes needed to the country’s old post-war policies that are now being challenged by globalisation and domestic social changes.
“The priority for higher education is on strengthening innovation among students. Achieving this goal calls for policies based on new foresight and ethos. But that is not forthcoming from politicians and bureaucrats who are risk averse,” he said.
Cassim, who has a science and engineering background and is former president of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Kyushu, said the way to go is to provide programmes that foster innovative technology and global connectivity to help students to embark on start-ups.
“Young university students are acutely aware that jobs in 2030 are not easily defined. Higher education in Japan must cater to this reality,” Cassim told University World News.
The University of Tokyo, Japan’s leading national university, on 1 October announced that it was setting up a new JPY100 billion (US$878 million) fund from donations and income from public-private projects which will allow for more flexible use compared to government funding, including inviting outstanding researchers from within and outside Japan.
But it is also an indication that it did not expect an increase in government subsidies, experts said, and needed to fund policies outside the government’s rigid confines. A fundraising drive was announced on 1 October with the stipulation of flexible use of the money in comparison to the strict regulations governing government subsidies.
The university said as part of its new funding policy it would inject JPY60 billion (US$527 million) in the next decade via another fund for its students and teachers to start companies. Another key aim, which would be difficult using government subsidies, is to increase its female student ratio from 23.8% to 30% by 2030.
In 2019 Japan had the lowest proportion of women studying science among 36 comparable Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member countries, which are mostly advanced economies. Women entering STEM at the tertiary education level was at 27%, below the OECD average of 52%.
Under Tokyo University’s plan, the current female teacher rate of 18% would also improve to 25% in five years, including by increasing the ratio of women among newly hired researchers to 30% or higher.
Science and technology funding
With its economic focus in higher education policy, and citing the need to compete with other countries such as China, the LDP this year announced bold investments in STEM, with targets to achieve JPY30 trillion (US$264 billion) for R&D over five years from fiscal 2021 to 2025 and JPY120 trillion (US$1 trillion) in combined public and private funding.
It was billed as a policy to spur economic growth and ensure ‘economic security’ rather than boost universities.
The government cites economic security as being behind most of its science and technology spending, and has promised new economic security legislation to prevent sensitive technologies being leaked to other countries.
Immediately prior to the election, Kishida promised that one of his first initiatives would be a JPY500 billion (US$4.4 billion) fund to support R&D for vaccine development for infectious diseases and new drugs, as part of his pledge to strengthen Japan’s COVID-19 response as well as science and technology. Although it includes some funding for basic research, most of this is aimed at pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.
An economic package ‘worth tens of trillions of yen’ will be drawn up in the coming weeks to bolster measures against coronavirus and ensure steady economic growth, Kishida promised prior to the 31 October election.
Kyodo News agency reported that, as part of this, the government would also expand its huge ‘university fund’ by some JPY600 billion (US$5.3 billion) in a bid to enhance research activities.
Aimed at reversing the decline in Japan’s science research and making it globally competitive, the fund announced in March this year, worth JPY4.5 trillion (US$40 billion) in government seed funding, is scheduled to be launched by March 2022 under the Japan Science and Technology Agency to help Japanese universities invest in future research. Kishida is seeking to expand it eventually to around JPY10 trillion (US$88 billion), Kyodo reported.
Commenting on the release on 2 November of the latest QS Asia University Rankings which put the top Japanese university, the University of Tokyo, at 11th place, behind universities in Singapore, Hong Kong and mainland China, QS Research Director Ben Sowter noted that Japan’s universities are stagnating.
“The latest edition of our Asian ranking confirms that the Japanese higher education system is losing ground to its regional peers, in particular China,” he said. “It is essential to level the playing field for Japanese universities, secure substantial research budgets and optimise the distribution of funding across all institutions, not just the leading ones.”
Sowter continued: “The announced JPY10 trillion government fund to boost research at Japan’s universities is an important step in the right direction. Yet, more needs to be done to restore the international standing and competitiveness of Japanese universities – for example, reopening to international students and faculty, aligning with the other G7 countries, as soon as possible.
“Lastly, fostering university education in a country with a dwindling youth population and increasing economic disparity must go hand in hand with reforms to ensure the affordability of such an education.”
The importance of actively recruiting and providing support for international students is also a key request for the new government. Experts said Japan is in need of more information technology talent, which can be fulfilled with foreign students who have studied in Japan.
Takashi Kumon, a professor at Asia University who teaches management studies and global leadership, is also calling for government policies that allow for foreign students to play an inclusive role in Japanese companies, pointing out that only 30% of foreign students graduating with high-level skills from Japanese universities are employed in Japanese companies.
In a recent article in Japan’s leading economic magazine, Toyo Keizai, he wrote that the trend was for foreign graduates to leave Japan after an average of five years, marking a loss for Japan.
Kyushu University’s Hasumi and others voiced a common frustration among universities struggling with stringent Japanese COVID-19 related immigration regulations that locked out 90% of international students in 2020.
Japan accepted a little more than 49,000 students from overseas compared to almost 122,000 in 2019. It is the only country in the Group of Seven (G7) economies that has banned new foreign students as part of its pandemic control measures.
The Japan Association for International Student Education, comprised of universities, pointed out that Japan is losing its credibility among international students who are now enrolling in other countries.
University World News Asia Editor Yojana Sharma contributed to this article.