Education Minister Makiko Tanaka, who ignored the proper procedure, bears heavy responsibility for the recent confusion over the approval of the opening of three new universities. But apart from her problematic behavior, she has raised some valid points. It is high time that the education ministry made meaningful changes to the procedure for approving the opening of new universities and set down new standards for universities suitable to today’s situation.

On Nov. 1, an advisory body approved the opening of three universities — an art university in Akita, a women’s university in Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture, and a health science university in Sapporo — from April 2013 after examining their educational, financial and other qualifications for several months. But Ms. Tanaka the next day overturned the advisory body’s decision, saying that the quality of university education has declined as the number of universities has increased and that the current system of approving the opening of universities is flawed. She failed to mention what was particularly wrong with the body’s decision concerning the three universities.

Facing severe criticism, Ms. Tanaka on Nov. 6 said that the three universities’ applications would be examined anew under new standards, probably ad hoc standards. The next day, Ms. Tanaka further changed her stance, telling the Lower House education committee that the opening of the three universities would be examined under current standards. On Nov. 8, the education ministry eventually approved their opening in April 2013.

Although Ms. Tanaka did not explain in detail when she announced her decision, it is imperative for the education ministry to study in detail whether the current policy related to the opening of universities improves the quality of university education.

Since the education ministry made it easier for universities to open in the early 1990s, the number of universities in Japan has increased more than 1.5 times from about 500 to some 780 now. Under the policy, universities build school structures and secure teachers even before the advisory body makes a final decision concerning their opening, which one could say is akin to putting the cart before the horse. It is imperative to study what is wrong in concrete terms with the current policy. If necessary, the system must be drastically changed.

The education ministry is scheduled to set up a study group to discuss new standards for opening new universities. It should discuss what kinds of educational needs exist in Japanese society today and what kinds of universities and university courses can best meet them. It also needs to discuss how to ensure the stable management of universities once they are opened.

It will also be important to find ways to ensure that students’ concentrated studies in specific fields are supplemented by a broad education in liberal arts — history, philosophy, etc. — and basic science. A failure to do so will lower the quality of university education and eventually weaken Japan’s global influence.

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