Japan reforms universities to stimulate research

by AFP/Francois Lacombe, Dec 19, 2003 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo

TOKYO, Dec 9, 2003 - Japan's public universities, modelled on late 19th century Western academic institutions, are undergoing profound change. It is a colossal project which takes effect next April and will influence the future of research in Japan.

The law enabling the structural reform of the universities was approved by parliament in July. The legislation is the result of the realisation during the recession-plagued 1990s that in order to return to lasting growth, Japan needs to stimulate the creativity of its researchers and invest heavily in sectors such as medical research and biotechnology where it lags other countries.

Japanese research and development spending is already high by global standards, enabling Japan to become a world leader in fields such as robotics and nano-technology. In 2002 it was the equivalent of 3.14 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), compared to 2.7 percent in the United States and 2.52 percent in Germany, according to CAE (Centre for Economic Analysis), a panel of experts advising the French prime minister. The European Union as a whole has set 2010 as a target date for increasing research and development spending from the current 2.0 percent of GDP to 3.0 percent.

Masayuki Inoue, a director in the science and technology department of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), said the planned changes were "the most important university reform for more than a century in Japan."

"The restructured universities, which in future will (be) more private sector partnership-oriented, are expected to play a key role in the research domain," he added.

The reforms aim to bring about mergers of universities in order to strengthen their position in global rankings based on assessments by third parties. Twelve of the 99 major public universities have already merged since October last year, and the trend is expected to extend to the 525 private institutions and 76 run by regional or local authorities. Under the reforms, the national universities will acquire the status of a corporation, which will bring greater "freedom in allocating funds, increased accountability on the part of their management," as well allowing them to recruit staff from outside academic circles or the bureaucracy, Inoue said.

After April 1, 2004, tutors at the public universities will lose their civil servant status, and will be expected to be more ready to participate in joint projects with private laboratories, which account for about 80 percent of the research effort in Japan.

The government is also planning to increase research funding based on competitive tender. Since last year, "centres of excellence" set up in universities have been adapting to the greater emphasis place by MEXT on the relevance of projects seeking funding. The centres of excellence are PhD-level graduate schools or research institutes aiming to become world leaders in their field. Japan's university laboratories will also be expected to accept more foreign students.

The increase in international scientific collaboration in recent years has prompted Japan to send its young researchers to prestigious laboratories in the United States and Europe.

During a visit to Tokyo this week, the European Union's research commissioner Philippe Busquin urged greater Japanese participation in European research projects. "Japanese researchers can be funded by Europe if they are part of a team with other researchers, as long as the project is coordinated by a European," he said at press conference on Monday.

Michel Israel, scientific counsellor at the French embassy, said the university reforms meant the prospects for conducting research domestically were increasingly attractive, however. "Management autonomy, the introduction of the principle of competition, attention to project evaluation, control on spending public money, the reduction in the number of bureaucrats and the promotion of ties between universities and industry -- all these things mean Japan is creating an environment even more conducive to innovation and creativity."

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