A government advisory panel has postponed its decision on whether to approve the opening of a new veterinary science school next April at a university run by Kake Gakuen, the school operator at the center of favoritism allegations that involve Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his close aides. The education ministry panel tasked with screening plans to open new universities and departments was set to make the decision by the end of August, but is now likely to put off the decision until later in the year. Since suspicions have intensified over the government process that dealt with Kake Gakuen’s plan to open the new school inside a special deregulatory zone in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture, the ministry should make public the discussions held by its panel to quell further doubts over whether the plan is being equitably handled by the Abe administration.
Suspicions of government favoritism for Kake Gakuen, which is headed by Abe’s longtime friend, came to the fore after education ministry documents surfaced of exchanges between the ministry’s officials and the Cabinet Office held last year. Some of the documents quoted senior Cabinet Office officials as citing “the prime minister’s intent” for approving the opening of a veterinary science department — which has not been approved for the past 50 years — in pushing the reluctant ministry to expedite the process. Kihei Maekawa, former administrative vice education minister, told the Diet in July that he also faced pressures from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Cabinet Office, and that administrative decisions had been distorted on the matter.
The Abe administration insists that Kake Gakuen’s plan — which was endorsed by a government conference on special deregulation districts in January — meets the four conditions the government set in 2015 for opening of a new veterinary science school: (1) that a new school should implement an idea other than the nurturing of conventional veterinarians at existing schools; (2) that there are concrete demand as in the field of life science to which veterinarians should respond; (3) that existing schools cannot cope with such demand and (4) that demand for veterinarians in recent years and the nationwide situation should be taken into consideration when a plan for a new veterinarian science school is examined.
Kake Gakuen formally applied to the education ministry council in March for approval of opening the new veterinary science school at its Okayama University of Science’s new Imabari campus in April 2018. Its plan envisaged veterinary science education at international levels and making the school a base to prevent the spread of cross-border infectious diseases among domestic animals. It also set an annual enrollment limit at 160, which means that if the plan is approved, the capacity for accepting students at veterinarian science schools nationwide would increase by as much as 20 percent.
In May, the council called on Kake Gakuen to rethink its enrollment capacity plan and its recruitment policy for the teaching staff, citing concerns over the quality of education to be given at the school. Although the school operator submitted a revised plan, the council has reportedly decided to put off its decision since the plan for students’ practical training was deemed inadequate and questions remained as to how it could train veterinarians to be able to contribute to enhancing life science. Some members of the council are said to have voiced concern over the fact that too many of the teaching staff informally tapped by Kake Gakuen to teach at the new school either were above the age of 65 or had no previous teaching experience
The development raises doubts as to whether Kake Gakuen was really prepared to meet the four conditions at its planned school. Maekawa had told the Diet that during the government process that chose Kake Gakuen as the operator of the new school at the special deregulation district, no sufficient discussion had been made on whether it met the four conditions. It will be all the more important for the council to scrutinize the new school plan against the four conditions.
There was another school that sought to open a new veterinary science school — Kyoto Sangyo University in Kyoto, which eventually did not join the final bid for the special deregulation district project. It remains shrouded in mystery whether or how the plans by Kake Gakuen and Kyoto Sangyo University were compared by the government. The Cabinet Office says it did not keep the minutes of discussions when the two plans were weighed because they were kept internal.
The education ministry says its council conducts its discussion behind closed doors so that it will not be influenced by various opinions. The ministry should realize, however, that people’s trust in its review process will only be gained by making the process transparent.