In shocking win, Tohoku University named sole beneficiary of university fund grant in Japan

Tohoku University in Sendai has been named the sole recipient of a grant from Japan’s university fund, initially intended to be distributed among four to six institutions.

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Sendai’s Tohoku University has emerged as the sole beneficiary of a significant grant from Japan’s University Fund, originally intended for distribution among a group of universities with the aim of establishing a league of institutions akin to the US Ivy League. This decision has taken many by surprise, as the initial plan was to allocate the fund to four to six universities.

The Japan University Fund was inaugurated in 2021 with an endowment of ¥10 trillion ($75 billion). It was designed to help establish the educational and research landscape in the country. The government initially committed to allocating 3 percent of the fund’s total value, which equates to ¥300 billion or $2 billion annually, to a select group of universities over a 25-year period.

Shift in distribution plans

On Sept. 1, the government announced that only Tohoku University would receive this year’s grant, sidelining nine other applicants, including esteemed institutions such as the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University. The Japan Science and Technology Agency, the fund’s manager, clarified that the 2022 income amounted to just ¥74 billion (approximately $500 million), affecting the distribution amount. The full targeted sum of ¥300 billion will not be available until 2026.

Tohoku University’s unique proposals

The decision to award Tohoku the grant was based on the university’s unique proposals, including adopting Japanese and English as official languages and increasing the percentage of international faculty and students to 30 percent. The university also intends to transition away from traditional hierarchical laboratory structures, thereby empowering early-career scientists.

Takahiro Ueyama, chair of the selection board, explained that Tohoku’s proposal was the only one considered suitable for this funding cycle. Critics, however, argue that the board appears to have prioritized management reform over historical research performance.

Ambitious plans for the grant

Tohoku University intends to allocate part of the grant to nurture startup companies, with the goal of establishing 1,500 new companies in the next 25 years, thus creating a sustainable income stream. Akiyoshi Yonezawa, vice director of the International Strategy Office at Tohoku, stressed the importance of attracting young, international talent for the university’s long-term success.

Another round of applications is scheduled for next year, as announced by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. 

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