Regional universities a new focus of research excellence

A Japanese government plan to set up world-class centres for basic research in regional universities will strengthen its international competitiveness and narrow the gaping divide between Japan’s elite research institutions and regional universities.

Substantial research grants will be extended to regional universities, according to budget proposals currently being drawn up for the 2018 fiscal year.

If the 10-year plan for regional universities is approved later this year as part of the budget deliberations, academics say it will break the stranglehold over fundamental research funding by the country’s most prestigious higher education institutions and level the playing field.

A key aspect of the new programme is collaboration with international scholars and institutions. The field of research is secondary, said Yusei Nagata, the official in charge of the project in the Ministry of Education.

The initiative will be aimed at smaller universities that have displayed research prominence. “The objective is to invite more regional universities to apply if the applicant clearly demonstrates the research will be globally recognised,” said Nagata.

The move has been welcomed by many academics.

“Expanding basic research opportunities to smaller and local universities is long overdue,” said Hiromi Yokoyama, who teaches science communication at the University of Tokyo. “The project is vital to shore up these universities struggling to survive against the downsizing of student enrolment and unstable employment opportunities,” she said.

Japan’s population is rapidly declining due to a low birth rate, and a population exodus from regional areas to metropolitan areas – particularly Tokyo – is damaging the wider economy, with younger people under 25 years of age most likely to leave the regions.

Regional authorities have been lobbying the government to increase funding to universities outside the capital to retain more talent.

Antidote to WPI

The Ministry of Education launched the World Premier International Research Center Initiative or WPI in 2007 to shore up the country’s international research competitiveness.

The programme, supporting large teams of researchers, allocates an annual budget of JPY1.4 billion (US$12.7 million) to create world-class research hubs. Nine leading institutions are recipients, including the national University of Tokyo and Tohoku University. Currently two research projects are ongoing.

But under the current plan the government will allocate hundreds of millions of Yen each year to research centres outside the main cities, that are not part of the WPI projects.

“Extending research funds to small universities opens the doors to young academics employed there. Regional universities need this new blood,” said Yokoyama, whose university – the University of Tokyo – benefits from WPI.

She points out that regional universities are cutting-edge in several fields based on local expertise and environment.

For example, Nagasaki University, located in Nagasaki, is a world leader in atomic radiation research linked to the city’s experience of the United States’ atomic bomb attack on 9 August 1945.

Tottori University, situated in Tottori prefecture, is famous for vast sand dunes. The institution boasts a high public profile in research on desert science.

Flood of applications

Applications for the new funds from Japan’s smaller and mid-size universities have been flooding in, according to Japanese media reports.

But Nagata said the extent of the programme would depend on the final agreement on budget allocations. Budget deliberations will start later this year.

“The actual size of the funds that will cover a 10-year span will depend on the decisions by the Finance Ministry,” he explained.

And Professor Tsukasa Daizen, director of the Research Institute for Higher Education at Hiroshima University, said there were still many hurdles to overcome, not least because of a mismatch between reality and the ministry’s objective of creating world-class research.

These include the challenge of bringing internationally renowned scholars into smaller universities where research tends to cater to local needs.

Applications for funding by regional universities “must pass a panel set up by the ministry that can turn down requests given the smaller international capacity of regional universities. This could mean Japan’s top institutions will continue to dominate in research,” he said.

Japanese universities are heavily dependent on public funds but have suffered from cutbacks of over 10% a year in research allocations against the backdrop of a sluggish national economy.