Reports of a planned merger between two of Japan’s most prestigious universities, which comes just months after a change in government policy to reward top researchers, have sparked speculation in academia as to whether there may be other such initiatives underway.
Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) and Tokyo Medical and Dental University (TMDU), two national universities in Japan, reportedly started talks in early August with the aim of merging by 2023, according to national media. .
If all goes according to plan, their union would be the most publicized consolidation yet, said Masayuki Kobayashi, professor of business administration at JF Oberlin University.
“The merger of these two universities will be very radical and epoch-making in Japanese higher education if it happens,” he said.
The news comes just months after Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s administration announced it would allocate up to 10 trillion yen ($73 billion) to its International Excellence University program, aimed at creating world-class universities and to drive innovation. The fund will be open to universities from 2024, according to reports.
Kobayashi speculated that the fund could be one of the reasons for the merger, adding that it would not be the first time that Tokyo has caused a change in the sector.
Not so long ago, a policy spearheaded by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi resulted in a series of mergers, with 24 state universities and colleges – combinations of large comprehensive universities and small local universities – combining around 2014 .
The recent move could signal the sector may be heading 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 both universities’ research productivity and gains in international rankings.
But the academics who listed the potential benefits said they came with a grain of salt.
Norihiro Tokitoh, vice president of Kyoto University, said the Tokyo Tech-TMDU union was “very natural”, with strong competition among universities for limited funding. But he warned of potential negative effects, noting that integration carries “a certain risk” that universities “lose their original characteristics”.
Other scholars feared that big players joining together would reinforce inequalities between institutions, with the poor becoming ‘poorer’.
As Kobayashi pointed out, Tokyo is increasing competitive grants for top researchers even as it continues to cut government grants to universities by 1% a year, something it started doing in 2004.
“The small state universities have suffered from this policy…the number of [high-impact] research articles has declined rapidly in Japan. I fear that is the only bad symptom of this political reform,” he said.
Hiroshi Ota, director of the General Education Center at Hitotsubashi University, said whether more national universities follow suit would depend on government incentives. But even without the incentive, as the number of young people in the country dwindles, some universities may have no choice but to consolidate.
“Given that the population of 18-year-olds will continue to decline in Japan, mergers could be a realistic option for private universities that cannot recruit enough students,” he said.