Funding woes cast doubt on future of pioneering Japanese campus

Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology reins in plans for expansion as president announces departure

February 1, 2022
OIST campus building seen from a bird's-eye view to illustrate Funding woes cast doubt on future of pioneering Japanese campus
Source: OIST/Kenji Togo/Alamy

Funding challenges are threatening to disrupt the ambitious aims of Japan’s showcase publicly backed international university – and could augur disappointment for future attempts to break the traditional mould, according to academics.

Since its establishment in 2011, the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) has stood out from run-of-the-mill Japanese universities as an English-language institution enjoying Tokyo’s political backing and generous public funding. Despite its location on a small island in the Pacific Ocean hundreds of miles from the rest of the country, 82 per cent of its PhD students and 62 per cent of its faculty come from overseas.

Its academic staff are guaranteed five years of funding before they must pass peer review – allowing them to devote their time to pursuing research rather than chasing grants. Over the past decade, OIST has become one of the world’s top 10 institutions when research quality is normalised by scale, according to Nature Index.

But the very ingredients that have fed its success could now undercut it: OIST’s heavy reliance on government funding could mar its prospects, and recent signs do not bode well.

Last month, the university announced that its president, Peter Gruss, a former head of Germany’s Max Planck Society, would step down at the end of 2022 without renewing his five-year appointment, amid “challenges in terms of financing the university’s envisioned size and strategic plan”.

Despite the institution’s strong research performance, it has failed to secure enough money to sustain its rapid expansion. Construction of a fifth laboratory on its campus, which nestles into the island’s jungle-covered hills, is under way.

But already, the university has had to rein in its ambitions. Home to 88 research units, it had aimed to boost its firepower to 100 units by 2023, with an eventual 300 planned. But “in light of the upcoming budget, OIST is adjusting its goal”, aiming instead for 100 units by 2026, Heather Young, OIST’s vice-president for communication and public relations, told Times Higher Education.

She said the current projected growth was, in Dr Gruss’ view, “a serious obstacle to the achievement of OIST’s vision” but maintained that the institution would continue to lobby for greater funding.

“This will not prevent OIST from prevailing in the longer term, but an ambitious rate of expansion must be regained within the next five to 10 years,” she said.

Observers had regarded OIST as offering a model for solving broader challenges in Japanese higher education, relating to low levels of internationalisation, limited use of English and declining performance in international rankings.

But Aki Tonami, an associate professor of international relations and economics at the University of Tsukuba, expressed concern that, despite OIST’s best efforts, the government may have moved on, funnelling its resources into another project.

“With all the Japanese political actors who have been instrumental in running OIST gone after three decades, and the Cabinet Office announcing a renewed plan to boost [its] $88 billion [£66 billion] university fund as the new signature project, perhaps it was deemed difficult and unrealistic to allocate more funding to OIST, however successful it has been,” she said.

Takakazu Yamagishi, director of the Center for International Affairs at Nanzan University, said the case resembled a pattern he had seen in funding for other ambitious projects.

“The Ministry of Education likes to bring fireworks once in a while,” he said, listing examples of special budgets or grants given to institutions. “But to continue is probably not politically appealing for Japanese bureaucrats.”

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