Universities brace for more cuts as defence spending rises

Universities are bracing for cuts to higher education amid a huge rise in defence spending by Japan’s government led by Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, and a national policy to boost science and technology competitiveness, including military-related research.

Since Kishida took office in October 2021, after a landslide election victory, Japan has been spearheading the development of military technology to support national security against the backdrop of China’s rising influence in Asia and recent North Korean missile launches towards Japanese territory.

Japan’s defence spending is slated to increase to 2% of the country’s gross domestic product by 2027. This would include increased spending on defence research – a break from the decades-long policy that kept the defence budget within 1% of GDP.

The proposed defence budget for fiscal 2023 will double spending over five years from the current JPY5.4 trillion (US$40.7 billion), pushing Japan to third place in the world for military spending behind the United States and China.

However, with such huge increases in defence spending, the fear is that higher education and research will continue to be subjected to what has been more than a decade of underfunding and underinvestment, and the diversion of research funding towards defence-related projects.

“Academics are concerned as the government pushes for more financial support for military- related research,” explained Shun Ishihara, professor of sociology at Meiji Gakuin University.

Japan’s Defence Minister Hamada Yasukazu was quoted by Japanese media in October 2022 advocating a system to allow researchers under the ministry to access public funds for science research totalling around JPY4 trillion.

The fiscal 2023 budget request seeks JPY21.4 billion, a massive jump from the current JPY900 million, for ‘bridge research’ that will explore the use of existing basic research for military purposes, according to Nikkei media.

Military technology and research

Missile technologies to strengthen Japan’s counterattack capabilities are at the top of defence research priorities outlined by the Defence Ministry for 2024.

In October Nikkei reported that the government was considering setting up a new research body in 2024 under the Defence Ministry to support civilian technologies with military applications. In focus are cutting-edge projects in artificial intelligence, quantum computing and drone technology.

According to the reports, this would bring Japan in line with countries such as China and the United States that integrate civilian technology with military use.

Shiraishi Takashi, chancellor of the prefectural University of Kumamoto and former president of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, in an article published on 27 November 2022 in Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s major newspaper, backed the government’s move to increase funding for military use.

“As long as universities in Japan decline to carry out dual-use research, (technology for civilian or military purposes), off-campus research projects should be pursued,” he wrote.

Off-campus research is a reference to research carried out under the Defence Ministry, for example.

However Kajita Taakaki, president of the Science Council of Japan, reportedly said in a letter to the State Minister for Science and Technology Policy that “distinguishing science and technology research by its potential for diversion [to the military] or making blanket judgements about its applications is not realistic”.

The Japanese Coalition Against Military Research in Academia headed by emeritus astrophysics Professor Ikeuchi Satoru views the increase in dual-use technologies involving civil scientists as “severely violating academic freedom because the achievements of military-funded research will not be open to the public without permission of the military”.

In November 2022 the group held an academic conference and appealed for universities to remain independent from government or political authority.

Unstable employment for scholars

Among the higher education issues inherited by the Kishida government, experts point to unstable employment conditions for academics and researchers, a concentration of public funds for research in elite national universities and the active role played by politicians in higher education, as some of the more critical issues facing universities.

Indeed, tenured positions in universities, once the norm, now represent less than 50% on average of university employees, according to the Union of University Part-time Lecturers. In addition, promotion of STEM (science and technology, engineering and mathematics) curricula is at the forefront of government higher education policy.

“Leaders of the [ruling] conservative Liberal Democratic Party are pushing education policies that aim for short-term results,” Meiji Gakuin University’s Ishihara told University World News, noting the government’s demand for results within short periods. “The consequences are far-reaching for universities and have not led to the successful breakthroughs as touted by the authorities.”

Continuing policies of previous leaders

An expert on university reform, Ishihara said Kishida is closely following the policy of previous leaders in the conservative Liberal Democratic Party.

Previous Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who died in July, pushed through landmark reforms under his Abenomics policy that pledged to remake Japan into a global player. Abe defined the role of universities as “engines of economic growth” and passed far-reaching legislation towards that goal.

The emerging changes in universities are linked to the 2004 landmark reform under the Abe administration that saw the enactment of the National Universities Corporation Act geared towards turning Japan’s 86 national universities into independent entities.

The reform reduced by 10% per annum the public subsidies supporting university management, forcing higher education leaders to embark on new measures to compete for funding.

In 2015 the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology also divided national universities into three main categories based on research capacity: universities that can compete globally; those with unique research programmes; and those that contribute to regional economic development.

“Abe’s reforms basically forced universities to compete for public research funds that focused on supporting national competitiveness in science and technology. That policy is forcing a widening gap even between national universities, with tightened public subsidies aimed mainly at the prestigious institution and leaving out others,” said Ishihara.

The University of Tokyo and Kyoto University, two of Japan’s leading national universities, are the top recipients of public funding. Trillions of yen are extended to shore up science-based research.

Demographic decline

Japan’s declining population is continuing to affect higher education, alongside the government’s focus on STEM.

Mergers are an option for some leading universities (beyond the Universities of Tokyo and Kyoto University) to survive. In November 2022, the Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) – often regarded as the Japanese equivalent of the United States’ Massachusetts Institute of Technology – and Tokyo Medical and Dental University announced a merger in 2024 to become a major industrial research institution, fostering industry-university cooperation and global research.

The strengthened collaboration will enable them to bid for expanded funds from a JPY10 trillion government-backed investment fund for universities that was to start accepting applications from institutions from December 2022 until March 2023.

Tokyo Tech president Kazuya Masu told Yomiuri Shimbun on 2 December the merger would enable it to become “one of the world’s top research centres dealing with global issues”, referring to a central government goal of globalisation to improve the international ranking of Japanese universities.

Sato Yoichiro, vice-dean of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, a private institution, envisages critical changes sparked by tough competition between universities. “Factors such as the declining student population due to demographics and less public support for the humanities will negatively impact many smaller private universities that focus on these subjects. We can only survive by developing new programmes,” he said.

The strategy at APU, said Sato, is to strengthen its competitive edge as an international university.

“We will steadily increase the quota of foreigners that currently comprise 50% of our student body to beef up our reputation as one of the few universities that can offer a diverse higher education in Japan,” he told University World News.