On Nov. 2, education minister Makiko Tanaka overturned the recommendations made the previous day by a ministry advisory body and decided not to approve the opening of three new universities in fiscal 2013.

This is the first time in 30 years that recommendations by such an advisory body have been overturned. Although Ms. Tanaka has the final legal power to approve or disapprove the opening of universities, her action clearly constitutes abuse of discretion. She should quickly withdraw her decision.

In an apparent attempt to dodge criticism, she said Tuesday that the three universities’ applications will be examined anew under new standards — probably ad hoc standards. They may eventually be allowed to open. But the confusion caused by Ms. Tanaka will continue for the time being.

In announcing her Nov. 2 decision, she listed overall problems that Japan’s university system is currently facing as the grounds for blocking the opening of the three universities in question. But she has confused two different levels of questions.

The three universities are an arts university in Akita, a women’s university in Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture, and a health science university in Sapporo. They had filed requests for approval of their opening with the advisory body several months ago. The advisory body examined their educational, financial and other qualifications in accordance with the standards set by the education ministry. Because the body found that the planned universities satisfy the requirements, it recommended to Ms. Tanaka that their opening be approved.

Ms. Tanaka did not find any error in the advisory body’s examination of the three universities’ qualifications. Still she decided not to approve their opening. In fact, she did not say what is particularly wrong with the setup of the three universities.

The irrationality of her decision is highlighted by the fact that she accepted the recommendations by the same advisory body to approve the opening of new departments and graduate schools at 23 other universities.

In disapproving the opening of the three universities, Ms. Tanaka completely ignored the efforts made by them to pass the examination by the advisory body and apparently did not take into account the confusion and inconvenience that her decision will cause to students who have made preparations to enter the three universities.

Ms. Tanaka said that the quality of university education has declined as the number of universities has increased and that because the current system of approving the opening of universities is flawed, it must be changed.

As she has pointed out, the number of universities in Japan has increased more than 1.5 times from some 500 in the early 1990s to some 780 now. But her contention sounds vague.

Informed discussions must be held first on the social missions and educational needs that universities must fulfill in today’s Japan. Only then will it be possible to write new permanent standards for opening universities.

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