Boost competitiveness through medical-engineering collaborations

The latest move to merge two national universities is expected to improve the quality of research and enhance international competitiveness.

Two leading national science universities, Tokyo Institute of Technology and Tokyo Medical and Dental University, have decided to start negotiations for their merger.

They said that a joint meeting will be established soon to consider whether they should become a single new university or should have two universities under the umbrella of a management corporation.

Tokyo Institute of Technology has strengths in engineering fields, but has no medical school or university hospital. On the other hand, as Tokyo Medical and Dental University specializes in medicine, it is hard to say that it deals sufficiently with science and engineering. For that reason, the merger will complement each institution’s weaker areas.

It is significant that traditional universities with high research standards aim to integrate. The latest move could serve as an opportunity for more realignment among universities around the country.

The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry has been urging university integration and collaboration against the backdrop of the low birth rate. There are already systems in place in which a national university corporation manages multiple universities, or the national, public and private universities of a region are grouped together and operated in an integrated manner.

Many universities are working on partnerships and integration with the aim of contributing to local communities and improving research capabilities. In Hokkaido, three national universities — Otaru University of Commerce, Obihiro University of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine and Kitami Institute of Technology — integrated their operations in April to form a new management corporation. The management corporations of Nagoya University and Gifu University have also merged.

Medical and engineering collaborations that incorporate technologies from different fields, such as robotics and data science, to develop new medical devices and treatments, are attracting particular attention. This is because such efforts are expected to lead to the creation of university ventures and the attraction of private investment.

Among private universities, Keio University and Tokyo Dental College are in merger talks, while Waseda University is moving to strengthen ties with Nippon Medical School. At a time when medical and engineering collaborations are progressing among other leading universities, Tokyo Institute of Technology and Tokyo Medical and Dental University must also have felt a sense of urgency over their survival.

Another reason for the two national universities aiming for a merger is the existence of a university fund at a scale of ¥10 trillion created by the government. The system will allocate ¥300 billion of the fund’s investment income yearly to several universities that will later be chosen as eligible. The two universities may be hoping to capitalize on each other’s strengths and give a boost to gaining the allocation through their merger.

Japan’s research capabilities have been on the decline. Through the latest push for a bold realignment of the two universities, the fund’s aim of making Japanese universities into ones that can compete with the rest of the world can be said to have paid off.

In the future, it is hoped that a new university or two universities under a management corporation through the merger plan will cooperate with private enterprises and contribute to the improvement of Japan’s industrial competitiveness in pharmaceuticals and medical devices.

For the integration to have sufficient effect, however, the two universities need to share goals and philosophies and conduct research in an integrated manner. It is also important to overcome differences in school characteristics and cultures. University management ability from this point forward will be put to the test.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Aug. 10, 2022)