British academics who need cheering up about the state of our universities might glance nine time zones to the east. There, Japan is grappling with university problems that would make our hardest-pressed vice-chancellor feel some sympathy.
As we report this week (page 11), Japan's state sector of 100 top universities is likely to retain its present form for the foreseeable future, despite acute problems in the way it teaches, does research and exploits its findings. But there are plans to allow top universities to develop extensive contacts with the private sector. This sounds obvious to those used to United States or British practices, but so far there are too few incentives to attract Japanese academics to change the way they work.
The university system, based on the 19th-century German set-up and unaltered since, has until recently made it impossible for academics to make commercial gains from their research. Even seeking funds from external funders has been made as difficult as possible, leading many researchers to avoid it for fear of the bureaucratic nightmare it involves. This blockage is being cleared, but only slowly.
At the same time, Japanese university teaching seems untouched by the self-scrutiny that has overtaken British lecturing. Japanese universities fail to figure as a destination for internationally mobile students while more than 1,000 Japanese a year come to British universities as undergraduates, despite the cost, distance and need to work in a foreign language. Most are women who want to go to a country where the lecturers will take them seriously, but many -Jmen and women - add that they want to go somewhere where they can work hard at college rather than simply filling in time for three years.
There are some beneficiaries from the creaking nature of the Japanese national university system. One is the private university sector, which includes thousands of institutions, some, like the Tokyo Science University, of high prestige. Many gain from the national system's policy of mandatory retirement at 60, which frees staff for a productive decade in the private sector.
Also on the winning side of the present system are many of the graduates from its top universities. They form a stable and predictable crop that large companies can recruit with confidence, as can the Japanese civil service.
But even this guaranteed career path has drawbacks. In a country where 80 per cent of research is conducted in companies rather than universities, good industrial scientists are vital. But there are too few Japanese PhD students and far too few postdoctoral scientists. Students know that anyone older than first-degree age will be regarded with suspicion by major employers, whose catch-them-young policy encourages students to get into a firm fast rather than get the higher-level qualifications that are increasingly normal in Europe and North America.
The changes now being made to allow Japanese universities to become more connected to the commercial world may seem modest in the land of the new universities, breakneck expansion and new forms of higher education finance. But they could be important. They arise from the feeling that Japan needs to move to a higher level of innovation based on new science, especially in the life sciences and in information technology.
And despite Japan's economic traumas, they are being backed up by significant new money for university and government research and by organisational changes (which will be described in our Research section next week). If even modest success attends such reforms, the result will be a renewal of Japanese economic competitiveness into the new century.