There is good and bad news for Japanese universities. The good news is that in the World University Rankings 2024, released last September 27th, Japanese universities showed significant improvement in their standings. The University of Tokyo ranked the highest in the country, with a jump of 10 positions, from 39th place to 29th. Kyoto University ranked 55th, from 68th in the previous year, and the most remarkable leap was made by Tohoku University, advancing from 250th place to 130th.

Last September 13th, Tohoku University itself became the first recipient of funding under the “Universities for International Research Excellence” program launched by the Japanese government. This program aims to elevate the stature of the country’s universities and colleges to an internationally renowned level. The choice of Tohoku University over the other two eligible institutions, namely The University of Tokyo and Kyoto University, came as a surprise to Japan’s research community. This is not the first recognition that Tohoku University has received in recent times: the university ranked 1st for four consecutive years in the Japan University Rankings released in March by Times Higher Education, a British academic journal.

Now the bad news: Japan is a country with declining population, and is experiencing the ripple effects of this trend also in higher education. An estimate from the Ministry of Education suggests that between 2040 and 2050 the number of students entering Japanese universities will decline by approximately 130,000 compared to 2022. This challenge is particularly real for female-only universities, where declining enrollments are already prompting considerations of admitting male students as an immediate solution.

The government plans to raise ¥300 billion in annual funding starting as soon as fiscal year 2024, with the goal of providing substantial financial support to the designated universities for a period of up to 25 years. A long-term investment, that will hopefully elevate Japanese universities to the global forefront and challenge the negative forecasts for the future.