Top universities gear up to apply for new national fund

Top universities in Japan are preparing to apply for funding from a new and ambitious university funding project financed through a government endowment fund for science and technology development.

The national university endowment fund, which according to government estimates is projected to reach JPY10 trillion (US$82 billion) over time, will begin accepting applications from universities from April. Successful universities will be able to access larger research budgets in the fiscal year 2023.

Announced last year to mixed responses from experts, many of them sceptical about its projected investment returns, the fund – expected to be the largest in Japan – aims to turn around the country’s decade-long slide in research and global university rankings.

Analysts point to another important goal: aligning conservative university management to the more dynamic governance systems practised by some Western counterparts.

“The endowment fund is revolutionary in Japan because larger financial support for research is tied to strict terms. This is aimed at bolstering competition and innovation in Japanese higher education,” said Yuko Harayama, an executive director at Japan’s largest research organisation Riken and an advisor at Tohoku University, a major national research university in the north of Japan.

Even before the fund’s launch this April and any public announcement calling for proposals, all of Japan’s top national universities are in the throes of preparing proposals on the basis of requirements already announced, Harayama told University World News.

While many of the details of the fund’s conditions and criteria are still confidential, a key requirement is that universities applying for endowment funds should be able to show a 3% increase in their annual income through the development and implementation of new curricula.

Other requirements include increasing joint ventures, and setting up individual endowment funds to generate a certain level of return, which will mean only a few wealthy universities will qualify. Individual institutional endowments will require professionals from the finance industry to run them, which could be costly for universities.

According to Harayama, Tohoku University is planning to apply for the fund. To meet the requirements, the institution aims to strengthen its respected engineering department, including implementing new curricula and developing start-ups with regional companies that want to support the local economy, she said.

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