The Designated National University programme in Japan

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Dr Seiichi Matsuo

By Dr Seiichi Matsuo 
Nagoya University

Japan has almost 800 universities with over 75% in the private sector. However, for most Japanese high school students aspiring to take their education further, the ideal is to find a place in one of Japan’s prestigious national universities and in particular one of the seven former imperial universities: Hokkaido University, Tohoku University, the University of Tokyo, Nagoya University, Kyoto University, Osaka University, and Kyushu University. These institutes are internationally well-known, and can boast a long list of accomplishments. For instance, all but one of the 25 Japanese Nobel laureates have graduated from one these seven. This group of universities is also relatively well funded with close to 50% of the government university research budget being awarded to them alone. As an added incentive for the best students to apply, the fees at national universities are kept at a relatively low level of around JPY 550,000 per year (~ US$5,000 per year). These features have meant that the top 7 national universities have long been seen as power houses of academic activity within Japan.

However, the standing of even the top of these Japanese institutions is under threat from many sides. Perhaps the most significant challenge is the rapidly declining domestic 18-year old population. The figures are stark. Since peaking at 2 million in 1992, the number has now reduced to 1.4 million and by 2040 is expected to decline further to a mere 800,000. Many of the smaller private universities already find it difficult to fill all their undergraduate places, putting their income from student fees under pressure. Even in the top national universities where undergraduate student numbers are holding up, the smaller talent pool to draw from inevitably results in a lowering of the average ability of the student intake. The reduced competition also affects students’ incentive to work hard on their academic studies. This is reflected in a decreased interest in continuing onto post graduate research programmes.

A second major challenge is the reduced ability of universities to make major investments in improving infrastructure and human resources. For more than 10 years there has been a gradual decrease in government funding for national universities of about 1% per year. Such reductions have a disproportionately large effect on the smaller regional institutions which have fewer alternative sources of external funding. Even at the larger public universities legal restrictions limit the amount of commercial activity in which they can become involved to supplement their income.

In addition to these domestic pressures, Japanese universities also face increasing competition from abroad, in particular from wealthy neighbouring Asian countries such as China, Korea and Singapore. The ability of rankings to measure the true value and strength of a university are disputed, but from these data it seems clear that the relative strength of Japanese higher education is being eroded. The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) is one of the main indexes used in university evaluation. The weighting of the evaluation criteria used to calculate the ARWU results in a generally high rating for Japanese and Asian universities. However, even in the ARWU ranking there is a clear downward trend in the world ranking for the top Japanese universities: between 2004 and 2016 the University of Tokyo fell from 14 to 20 and Kyoto University, the second highest rated Japanese university fell from 21 to 32. Of the 7 former imperial universities, only Nagoya University has managed to buck this trend with an increase in world ranking from 97 to 72 over the same period.

The Japanese government is keenly aware of these problems and changing the way that Japanese universities are run has become a priority issue. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) has announced a series of programmes such as the Global 30 Program started in 2011 designed to introduce and expand undergraduate and graduate courses taught in English at the selected universities. In 2014, The Top Global University Program, was launched with a broader remit to boost the international profile of the selected institutions. This year, saw the start of a third initiative was launched to boost the prospects of the highest achieving Japanese universities, which also defines a new type of institution: the Designated National University or DNU.

The results of the first round of DNU applications were announced in June this year. A total of three universities were selected for this new designation: Tohoku University, the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University. The main reasons given for the selection of these three universities were their potential to develop into world-leading organisations in education, research and their contributions to society; the strength of their financial foundations; and their visions for developing a diverse system of education. MEXT has allocated JPY 1 billion in funds to support the programmes of reform proposed by the presidents of these three institutions.

The start line for DNU applications was already highly restricted: only those universities which were in the top seven domestically in the fields of research, contributions to society and internationalisation were eligible to apply. To the surprise of many, this excluded two of the former imperial universities, and the final line-up of eligible institutions was Tohoku University, the University of Tokyo, Hitotsubashi University, Tokyo Institute of Technology, Nagoya University, Kyoto University and Osaka University. All applied and the four institutes that were not selected in the first round are still listed as “DNU candidates”. Revised applications will be assessed at the end of 2017.

In addition to the extra funding, the selected DNU institutions will be given a special legal status that allows them to operate with greater autonomy for instance to manage university assets such as land on a commercial basis, and have more power to decide the numbers of students each institution wants to accept. With the newly defined legal status there will also likely come opportunities funds restricted to this group.

The published assessments of the applications from the three selected universities, give some indication of the areas of achievement that were highly valued by MEXT and directions for future development. For instance, at Tohoku University the strengths in industry-academia partnerships and research in the fields of spintronics, future medical applications and disaster science were all highly rated. The University of Tokyo has a long history of acting as an important think tank for government policy decision makers and has been at the forefront of introducing institutional research as an integral part of university governance. Kyoto University also proposed institutional reforms with the idea of introducing the role of provost: an American-style vice-president with overall responsibility for the internal affairs of the university. In research and education, the role of Kyoto University as the leading seat of learning for social sciences and humanities was rated highly.

The other four universities that applied have their own plans for reform and the lack of success this time should not be taken as a sign that there will be no changes. For instance, President Seiichi Matsuo of Nagoya University clearly stated before the application that the planned reforms were needed for the future development of the university irrespective of whether or not Nagoya University was selected to join the elite DNU group. Raising the international profile of Nagoya University is central to Matsuo’s plans and includes expansion of the programmes taught in English building on its leading role in this activity developed as a result of the G30 Program. To further raise the levels of the research, education and interaction with society, Matsuo also emphasises the need to develop alternative sources of external funding, for instance through university-based spin-off companies. Such new ventures need to be supported by a wide range of reforms in governance that will help improve efficiency. It is also clear that major reforms of the national universities depend not only on the initiative and leadership of the universities themselves, but also require revisions in the legal framework within which they have to operate. These legal revisions are seen by the universities as a key part of the DNU programme.

Looking into the future, it seems inevitable that there will be major changes in the way that universities are run in Japan and the next 10 to 15 years will probably see a significant number of mergers and closures. The smaller private universities are in a particularly vulnerable position. It will take great skill to manage the downsizing of the higher education system whilst at the same time keeping the strongest Japanese universities competitive with the world’s top institutions. Establishing the new type of Designated National Universities can be seen as one important step on the path to reorganisation with greater resources focused in a smaller number of institutions.

Dr Seiichi Matsuo was born on 20 December 1950. He received his Bachelor of Medicine in 1976 and his Doctor of Medicine in 1981, both from Nagoya University. He has experience as research fellow in Mount Sinai Medical Center and State University of New York in the US. From 2002–2006 he was a director at the Department of Nephrology as well as the Center for Postgraduate Clinical Training and Career Development of Nagoya University Hospital. Dr Seiichi has been president of Nagoya University since 2015. His area of expertise is nephrology and is affiliated with the Japanese Society of Internal Medicine and the Japanese Society of Nephrology.