New fund to boost digital and green technology programmes

The Japanese government has pledged to extend JPY300 billion (US$2.12 billion) to universities to reverse a decline in graduate rates in science fields and as part of its dual sustainable economic growth strategy of digitisation and sustainability.

Japan is banking on sustainable growth through technology innovation that can also improve energy and food security.

Announced by the ministry of education last month, the new fund focuses on sciences related to digital and green technologies and is aimed at improving Japan’s international ranking in all science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. It will support 111 universities and technical colleges that have plans to build or widen science-related departments.

International comparisons

According to data released by the ministry in 2022, only 35% of Japanese university students graduate with a STEM degree. The rate is behind the United States at 38%, South Korea at 42% and Britain at 45%.

In addition, the ministry pointed out that Japan ranked 12th worldwide for the number of highly-cited scientific papers between 2017 and 2020, representing a steep fall from its fourth position in the early 2000s.

The new STEM funding for higher education will be for a maximum of 10 years based on a two-pronged approach. The first category is public and private universities launching new departments or making structural changes to strengthen teaching related to digital and green technologies. Applications for funding can be made until the end of the 2032 fiscal year that ends in March of that year.

The second is for institutions to nurture ‘high-level talent’ through existing departments. Applications for this category will close in the 2025 fiscal year ending in March 2026.

Positive response

The initial response to the new funding pledge has been positive. Universities specialising in the humanities, for example, have announced plans to establish new STEM-related curricula and departments aimed at attracting new students.

Approximately 30% of the 67 institutions chosen under the first category were primarily humanities-based and have established STEM departments for the first time, according to Japanese media. They are expected to receive JPY2 billion each in funding. Approximately seven universities will receive both types of funds.

Fukui Prefectural University plans to offer a degree in dinosaur palaeontology by 2025 — the first such degree in Japan. It already has a Dinosaur Research Institute established in 2013 with its faculty offering courses as part of its humanities degrees.

Kyoai Gakuen University, which does not have a science faculty, announced it would set up a ‘digital green’ faculty in 2026. Akio Omori, the university’s president, said the new faculty will promote digital knowledge to support food and agriculture and develop human resources to tackle regional issues.

The private university is located in Maebashi city in Gunma prefecture, an agricultural area north of Tokyo, that is set to become a ‘digital green city’ under a government ‘Digital Garden’ subsidy programme launched by Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to increase growth in local areas through digital technology, while preserving local values and the environment.

One programme funded under this scheme focused on online support for agriculture using robot tractors that can be monitored remotely.

In addition, a new system to allow faculty members to teach at multiple universities and faculties has been introduced to reduce a shortage of teaching experts as STEM programmes expand.

IT and data science

Increased STEM funding also addresses a predicted severe lack of IT skills in the country – an estimated shortfall of almost 800,000 experts by 2030, according to the Industry Ministry. The shortage is, in part, driven by developments in artificial intelligence which require both IT and big data skills.

Some 17 universities will open new departments dedicated to data science and IT from the new academic year next April, to add to data science departments at some 137 universities, Nikkei media reported.

A case in point is Shiga University that was the first in Japan to establish a data science faculty. It will receive additional funding of up to JPY1 billion to strengthen the faculty and increase the number of students by around 50%.

Others such as Hitotsubashi University, Tokyo, have seen the success of the Shiga University programme. Hitotsubashi is launching a new department of social data science to apply data science to social science issues.

Other universities are national universities such as the University of Tokyo. The ministry plans to permit graduate and undergraduate students with high-level digital skills to start work immediately, even before they officially graduate.

Decline in student numbers

The new funding is also expected to address the shortage of students faced by some universities due to Japan’s decline in birthrates. According to 2022 data from the Promotion and Mutual Aid Corporation for Private Schools of Japan, 47.5% of Japan’s 800 private universities including two-year colleges reported that they had fewer applicants than available slots.

The situation has affected women’s universities in particular. Women’s universities overall are experiencing a 70% drop in applications that has forced them to merge with four-year colleges in order to survive.

Against this backdrop, the new science funding has, for instance, helped Tokyo-based Otsuma Women’s University to plan a data science faculty for 2025 aimed at students studying big data collection and analysis.

“The number of applicants for humanities and home economics is decreasing. We applied for this programme to shore up women’s universities as schools fall by the wayside,” Otsuma University President Masanao Itoh was quoted in the Japanese media as saying on 23 July.

Starting in 2024, the ministry also plans to expand eligibility rules for scholarship grants from low to middle-income students to boost applications.