Education minister Makiko Tanaka drew immediate flak in early November when she outright refused her advisory panel’s recommendation to approve three new universities.

The outspoken Tanaka justified her decision by asserting that higher education is in decline because there are too many universities.

As the criticism increased, however, she reversed herself and approved the three schools a week later.

Experts praised Tanaka’s initial decision to reject the schools and confirmed that while universities are indeed growing in number, the quality of education appeared to be deteriorating.

Following are questions and answers about the nation’s universities:

How many universities are there?

As of May 1, there were 783 universities nationwide, compared with 523 in 1992. Of the total, 86 are state-run, 92 are public and the remaining 605 are private.

While the total has climbed, the number of state-run universities has been in decline, falling to 86 from 100 in 2003.

The increase in universities ultimately pushed up the percentage of people going on to higher education, from 26 percent in 1992 to 51 percent in 2010, according to ministry data.

What is the college-age population?

The nation’s low birthrate has dented the population of young people.

The number of 18-year-olds peaked in 1992 at about 2.05 million, according to the education ministry. By 2010, however, they had dwindled to 1.22 million, down 40 percent.

Do all universities have full enrollment?

No. Out of 577 private universities, 264, or 46 percent, were underenrolled as of May 1, according to The Promotion and Mutual Aid Corporation for Private Schools of Japan, including 18 that were below 50 percent capacity.

Aya Yoshida, a professor of education at Waseda University, said most of the underenrolled universities are small, newly established schools in rural areas.

Some struggling universities, to fill their classrooms, will accept anyone regardless of academic ability. Some accept foreign students, mostly from China, as “fillers,” according to writer Taiji Yamauchi, who visited every university in Japan in 2009 and has penned several books on higher education.

But in the future this may not be an option because universities are on the rise in China and elsewhere in Asia, and their quality is improving, Yamauchi said.

Today anyone can effectively enter a four-year university if they aren’t too choosy, he said.

“There are university students who don’t know how to multiply. People need to know this reality,” Yamauchi said.

Why are universities proliferating if youth is in decline?

Experts say this mismatch is rooted in the relaxed standards for establishing universities.

The government began trying to curb the opening of new private universities in the latter half of the 1970s, according to the education ministry. But things changed in 2003, when then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi relaxed the rules to make them easier to set up, experts say.

For example, the government abolished a regulation that made foreign language study and physical education compulsory subjects.

Experts also point out that local-level governments, which are striving to retain their young people, are providing financial support to private organizations to build new universities.

“Elite high school students in rural areas leave their hometowns and go to top universities in the cities. To stop that, municipalities sometimes persuade local top private high schools into establishing universities,” Yamauchi said. “But in reality, no top-notch students go to newly established schools because most such institutions have low educational rankings.”

In addition, the waning popularity of junior colleges, or “tanki daigaku,” are forcing such institutions to transform into four-year universities to attract students, experts say.

Most junior college students used to be women who were not career-oriented. However, as more women seek real careers, they tend to favor universities, experts say.

“Nowadays, they go to four-year universities, leaving the two-year college no option but to convert into a university in order to survive,” Yoshida of Waseda University said.

According to education ministry data, while the number of universities rose to 783 in 2012 from 523 in 1992, junior colleges slid to 591 from 372 in the same period.

Of the 32 new universities opened since fiscal 2009 — including the three Tanaka ultimately approved in November — 15, or 47 percent, were former two-year colleges, the ministry said.

“I believe the biggest reason behind the growing number of universities is jobs,” Yamauchi said. “When you think of your future and getting a job, it’s better to show you’ve been to a four-year university.”

How does the approval process work?

The final decision is in the hands of the education minister.

But before that, an applicant school must be examined by two advisory panels under the ministry.

The advisory panels check an applicant’s documents, conduct interviews and carry out on-site assessments to gauge whether the wannabe schools meet government standards for curriculum, faculty, financial status and physical requirements. The entire process takes about eight months, the ministry said.

The panels consist of 29 members, including 21 university officials.

Yamauchi said that the criteria are quite easy to meet, and that if an applicant satisfies them, the panels cannot say no. According to ministry data, no request to establish a new university has been rejected in the past 15 years.

Has the ministry taken any new steps since November?

Yes. The ministry set up a study group in November to discuss the addition of new criteria to the approval process.

The group plans to reach a conclusion by the end of the year, with enforcement to begin as early as next year.

However, Yoshida of Waseda University said the mere addition of new criteria won’t improve the quality of higher education, because there are fewer applications to establish new universities and this trend is expected to continue.

“This year, there were only three applications. So the important thing is to have a system to thoroughly check quality of the existing universities,” Yoshida said.

In fiscal 2004, following the relaxation of standards for establishing universities, the education ministry instituted an accreditation system to check the quality of education at existing universities once every seven years.

Yoshida said the system is now, at least part of it, just a show.

“There are more than 700 universities and their quality varies. So there should be a decent system to check (their quality) as long as those schools exist as universities,” he said.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to hodobu@japantimes.co.jp