Funding challenges threaten to disrupt the ambitious goals of the Japan-backed international university showcase – and could spell disappointment for future attempts to break the traditional mould, academics say.
Since its establishment in 2011, Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) has stood out from ordinary Japanese universities as an English-language institution with political support from Tokyo 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% of its doctoral students and 62% of its professors come from abroad.
Its academic staff are guaranteed five years of funding before passing peer review, allowing them to focus their time on research rather than seeking grants. Over the past decade, OIST has become one of the top 10 institutions in the world when research quality is standardized by scale, according to Natural index.
But the very ingredients that fueled its success could now undermine it: OIST’s heavy reliance on government funding could spoil its prospects, and recent signs do not bode well.
Last month, the university announcement that its president, Peter Gruss, a former head of the German Max Planck Society, would step down at the end of 2022 without renewing his five-year term, amid “funding challenges of the size and strategic plan envisaged by the university”.
Despite the institution’s strong research performance, it failed to secure enough funding to support its rapid expansion. Construction of a fifth lab on its campus, nestled in the island’s jungle-covered hills, is underway.
But already, the university had to curb its ambitions. Housing 88 research units, it aimed to increase its firepower to 100 units by 2023, with 300 possibly planned. But “in light of the upcoming budget, OIST is adjusting its target,” aiming instead for 100 units by 2026, said Heather Young, OIST’s vice president for communications and public relations. Times Higher Education.
She said the current projected growth was, according to Dr Gruss, “a serious impediment to achieving OIST’s vision”, but maintained that the institution would continue to push for more funding.
“It won’t prevent OIST from prevailing in the longer term, but an ambitious pace of expansion must be regained within the next five to 10 years,” she said.
Observers saw the OIST as offering a model for solving the broader challenges of Japanese higher education, related to low levels of internationalization, 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, said he was concerned that, despite OIST’s best efforts, the government was able to move on, channeling its resources to another project.
“With all the Japanese political actors who have been instrumental in running the OIST after three decades, and the Cabinet Office announcing a renewed plan to boost [its] $88 billion [£66 billion] university fund as a new flagship project, it may have been deemed difficult and unrealistic to allocate more funds to OIST, regardless of its success,” she said.
Takakazu Yamagishi, director of Nanzan University’s Center for International Affairs, said the deal looked like a pattern he had seen in the funding of other ambitious projects.
“The Ministry of Education likes to bring fireworks from time to time,” he said, listing examples of special budgets or grants given to institutions. “But continuing is probably not politically attractive to Japanese bureaucrats.”