Education minister Makiko Tanaka has apologized for trying to cancel approvals given by her ministry bureaucrats for three institutions seeking to operate as fully fledged four-year universities providing undergraduate degrees. But should she have apologized?

There is a crisis in Japanese tertiary education. Student numbers decline while the number of approved universities increases relentlessly — by almost 100 in the last 10 years. Some 45 percent of private universities cannot fill the student number quotas set by Education Ministry (MEXT); this year 18 of them could not even reach half their quota. In desperation many will accept almost anyone who applies, provided they have a pulse as the saying goes. Some have already gone bankrupt. More will follow.

Some argue that if there is a demand for four-year tertiary education, why try to block new institutions seeking to provide it. But that only makes sense if, as in the West, universities can use tough curricula and exams to weed out unsuitable students. In Japan, failing students goes against the communalistic ethic, and against the law to some extent. It also cuts university income.