High-profile merger of Japanese universities could augur more

Two top institutions plan to join forces in potential bid for ¥10 trillion fund, amid concerns over widening gap between sector’s ‘rich and poor’

August 23, 2022
Oshimenawahari ceremony at Futami Okitama Shrine, Ise, Japan
Source: Getty

Reports of a planned merger between two of Japan’s most prestigious universities, which come only months after a shift in government policy to reward top research performers, have prompted speculation in academia over whether there could be more such moves in the making.

The Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) and Tokyo Medical and Dental University (TMDU), both national universities in Japan, reportedly began talks in early August with the aim of merging by 2023, according to national media.

If it goes to plan, their union would be the highest-profile consolidation to date, said Masayuki Kobayashi, a professor of business administration at J. F. Oberlin University.  

“The merging of these two universities will be very drastic and epoch-making in Japanese higher education if it happens,” he said.

The news comes just months after prime minister Fumio Kishida’s administration said it would allocate up to ¥10 trillion (£62 billion) for its University of International Excellence programme aimed at creating world-class universities and boosting innovation. The fund will be opened to universities from 2024, according to reports.  

Professor Kobayashi speculated that the fund may be one reason behind the merger, adding that it wouldn’t be the first time that Tokyo has prompted a shift in the sector.

Not long ago, a policy under prime minister Junichiro Koizumi resulted in a spate of mergers, with 24 state universities and colleges – combinations of large, comprehensive universities and smaller local ones – combining around 2014.

The recent move may indicate that the sector could be headed for more consolidations, academics said.

“This merger will certainly motivate other Japanese universities to think again about the possibilities” of similar moves, said Kazuo Kuroda, dean of the Graduate School of Asia Pacific Studies at Waseda University.

He predicted “positive effects” for the two universities’ research productivity and gains in international rankings.

But academics who listed potential benefits said they came with a grain of salt.

Norihiro Tokitoh, vice-president of Kyoto University, said that the Tokyo Tech-TMDU union was “very natural” with high competition among universities for finite funding. But he warned over potential negative effects, noting that integration carried “some risk” that the universities will “lose their original features”.

Other scholars worried that big players teaming up could further inequality between institutions, with the poor getting “poorer”.

As Professor Kobayashi pointed out, Tokyo is ramping up competitive subsidies for top research performers even as it continues to decrease government subsidies to universities by 1 per cent per year – something it started doing in 2004.

“Small state universities have suffered from this policy…the number of [high impact] research papers has been decreasing rapidly in Japan. I am afraid this is the one bad symptom of this policy reform,” he said.

Hiroshi Ota, director of the Center for General Education at Hitotsubashi University, said that whether more national universities followed suit would depend on government incentives. But even without enticement, as the country’s number of young people dips, some universities may have no choice but to consolidate.

“Considering that the population of 18-year-olds will continue to decline in Japan, mergers could be a realistic option for private universities that cannot secure enough students,” he said.

pola.lem@timeshighereducation.com

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