Tohoku University beats others to endowment fund jackpot

Tohoku University, a leading national university located in northeastern Japan, became the only candidate last week on a shortlist to receive the first grant from a coveted massive public fund to boost Japanese research internationally, according to an announcement on 5 September.

The university, located in Sendai, is recognised for its research capabilities, data gathering and overall student experience. It will receive 25 years of extra funding, starting in fiscal year 2024, and the funding could be as high as JPY10 billion (US$67.7 million) per year.

Professor Akiyoshi Yonezawa, vice-director of the International Strategy Office at Tohoku University, told University World News via email that the university’s own financial capacity and the endowment will support implementation of the university’s agenda and its ultimate goal to attract talents from around the world to pursue research and knowledge activities.

“We have a responsibility to be a Japanese university model for developing the capacity to be a world leader,” he said.

Initiated last year, the International Research Excellence programme provides a subsidy from profits generated from a huge JPY10 trillion (US$70 billion) endowment fund first announced in 2021.

A surprising choice

Tohoku University’s success came as a surprise to many in the research community in Japan.

There was fierce competition for the grant among the 10 finalists, which included two of Japan’s leading institutions: the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University, both seen as frontrunners, and both with a larger number of students and faculty than Tohoku University as well as private universities such as Waseda.

Others on the shortlist included the universities of Nagoya, Osaka and Kyushu. Some of these are expected to benefit in future application rounds.

Financial experts have noted that the endowment fund did not perform as well in its initial years as had been hoped, which some speculated may have been the reason behind the decision to award only a single university in this round. The fund was projected to generate around JPY300 billion in profits each year from 2024.

While its selection has been a major boost to Tohoku, the award is being described as conditional on some changes being made to the institution’s own proposals, possibly seen as too ambitious, to increase its funding over 25 years.

Highly rated by panel

Tohoku University was rated highly In June by a panel of 10 experts from Japan and overseas for the variety of its research fields, measures to strengthen research capabilities, and reforms of its management, according to the Education Ministry that will manage the programme. On-site examinations were also conducted.

Tohoku has a strong international reputation in disaster science. It was badly affected by the earthquake and tsunami that hit northeastern Japan in March 2011.

Tohoku University is also known for its cutting-edge science and technology research, including the next-generation Synchotron Radiation Facility known as ‘NanoTerasu’ being constructed on a Tohoku University campus at a cost of approximately JPY38 billion – split between public and private funding.

Once operational, the synchrotron facilities will be used to observe materials at the atomic level using electromagnetic waves.

NanoTerasu is expected to be utilised by the private sector for research and development of new materials from 2024 as part of a research complex that will include major companies as well as universities from around the world.

Commitment to reforms

Experts point out that the decision to select Tohoku, lower in international rankings than some larger national universities, at 203rd position in the Times Higher Education global rankings list, sends a strong message about the government’s commitment to reforms linked to expanding the global reach of Japanese technology and research.

“The decision by the government to only extend the fund to Tohoku is aimed at widening the capacity of Japanese universities in global competition,” said Professor Takamitsu Sawa, former president of Shiga University, a smaller national university.

Sawa viewed the endowment as government investing in Japan’s higher education in order to push reforms and set definite targets to raise global standards.

Only two Japanese universities are ranked within the Times Higher Education Global Ranking Index top 100. University of Tokyo, the nation’s top, was ranked 39th, and Kyoto University 68th.

President of Tokyo University Dr Teruo Fujii said in a statement after the decision was announced that his university would continue to work towards establishing “a new university model that expands our autonomous and creative activities”.

The National Institute of Science and Technology Policy’s 2022 global ranking for papers that are cited internationally put Japan in 13th position behind South Korea and Spain.

The drop in Japan’s once-strong research reputation is said to be related to inflexible systems and low access to international funding and private investment for Japanese research.

Wider reforms

The evaluation committee’s report emphasised the successful applicant’s wider vision and commitment to reform rather than its past track record or current research.

Among the reforms pledged by Tohoku University was to make Japanese and English joint official languages, increase the number of foreign researchers and students to 30% of its student body, and to expand its financial and business strategies to achieve business growth to around 3% annually.

An official at the Ministry’s higher education section, told University World News via email that Tohoku University was also appraised for plans to increase opportunities for early and mid-career researchers to take on challenges in an independent environment aimed at securing international funds.

This requires a transition from a conventional course system to an independent research system supported by diverse funding, including overseas resources. It also pledged the establishment of a university-wide tenure track system for researchers, the official said.

Concrete goals include doubling financial aid offered to doctoral students to JPY3.6 million per student annually. The university will also hire research support personnel to help increase research hours.

The Yomiuri newspaper, Japan’s leading daily, reported in September that some members of the advisory committee for the endowment fund expressed doubts that the investment could turn Tohoku University into a world-leading research institution.

But, according to local media, the Education Ministry concluded that Tohoku University has a research promotion system that will distinguish it from other national universities and that it could be a flagship for wider reforms.