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Tohoku alone to advance in Japan’s ¥10 trillion excellence scheme

Tohoku University is the only candidate through to final selection from nearly a dozen institutions initially shortlisted for Japan’s mega fund for universities.   

Designed to create “international research universities of excellence”, the ¥10 trillion (£64 billion) endowment fund is expected to generate roughly ¥300 billion in annual profits from 2024. Each year, ¥20 billion will go into student support, with the remaining ¥280 billion invested in a handful of universities, selected on a competitive basis. 

Among the nation’s top public universities, Tohoku alone has been chosen to advance, on condition that it submits some changes to its proposal, including readjusting its target of growing its funding, currently at ¥8.6 billion, tenfold over the scheme’s 25-year duration.

If successful, it should receive around ¥10 billion in the first year, with future subsidies calculated annually.

So far it is the only institution to make it to the final round, out of a handful meant ultimately to receive funding. Shortlisted institutions include some of Japan’s most prestigious, with eight national and two private universities – among them the University of Tokyo and the University of Kyoto – which will be able to reapply next year.

According to Japanese media, judges gave high marks to Tohoku’s proposal to break down the organisational hierarchy among researchers. The move goes against the grain in Japan, with its still highly structured system, in which job promotions are often based on seniority. Tohoku has pledged to let more junior scholars, such as assistant professors, become principal investigators on ambitious research projects.

But the panel was less sure of Tohoku’s target of growing its funding tenfold in 25 years, saying the aim would be difficult to achieve, according to reports.

“We are honoured that our university’s proposals have been recognised,” Tohoku’s president, Hideo Ohno, told reporters. “We will continue to make every effort to achieve final accreditation.”

Historically, Tohoku has pioneered change in Japanese higher education. As an imperial university it put in place “open doors” policies, becoming the first university in Japan to accept women and admit international students.

Its selection for the excellence fund follows other successes in recent years. In 2014, Tohoku was selected as one of 13 universities in the Global 30 Project to internationalise higher education in the country and began to offer international degrees taught entirely in English.

Funding under the current scheme would provide a sizeable boost to the institution as Japanese universities grapple with large challenges, including the need to internationalise amid rapid population decline.

Noriko Osumi, vice-president for diversity at Tohoku, told Times Higher Education that the university had advanced to the final round of the scheme just as the sector was at a crossroads.

“This support…will help to create an internationally outstanding research ecosystem for Japanese universities, which are facing a period of major change,” she said.

But some scholars are cautioning against opening the champagne too soon. Akiyoshi Yonezawa, a professor at the university and vice-director of its international strategy office, who spoke in his capacity as an international higher education expert, said he was cautiously optimistic.

“We should remember that Tohoku University is still a final candidate. The review committee under the national government requested Tohoku University to make further efforts to develop international capacity in the humanities and social sciences, for example,” he noted.

“The committee calls for a drastic change in organisational culture, especially at the university, where a tradition of faculty-based autonomy might face major challenges.”

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