Commentary / Japan

How Kake Gakuen's application process bucked the norm

by Takamitsu Sawa

The latter half of this year’s 150-day regular Diet session, which ran through mid-June, was mostly preoccupied with the questions surrounding a plan by Kake Gakuen, which is headed by a close friend of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and which runs several academic institutions, to open a new veterinary science department at a new university campus in Imabari, Ehime Prefecture. Although the issue was taken up again in the Diet in a one-day session in late July while the legislature was in recess, suspicions over the Kake Gakuen issue have yet to be cleared.

It is perhaps hard to comprehend wherein lie the problems related to Kake Gakuen’s plan. From my own experiences of working at universities for many years and taking the lead in setting up the department of data science at Shiga University in my capacity as its president, I would like to explain what is unusual and incomprehensible about the procedures for creating that new veterinary medicine department.

When an application is filed for establishing a new university or creating a new department, the education minister is required to seek advice from a panel responsible for screening the plans. A majority of the panel members are university professors. There are a series of processes that must be followed before the education minister decides to seek the panel’s counsel. To make the story easier to understand, I will focus on what an existing university needs to go through in seeking to open a new department.

When a consensus is reached within the university on a plan to create a new department, the university’s president and his staff take application papers to the section in charge of the matter at the Bureau of Higher Education of the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry. Unless the request is turned down outright, the university is requested to prepare detailed and evidence-based reports on several points.

First, the university must prove that the type of professional to be educated in the planned department is in short supply in this country and that, therefore, it is inconceivable that graduates would face difficulties in finding jobs. Second, it must be proved that there are sizable numbers of potential students who would study in the new department and that it is unlikely the number of students would fall short of its enrollment capacity. The third point to prove is that academic research in the new department is urgently needed — and that the standard of research in that area in Japan is lagging behind those in Europe, the United States, China, South Korea and so forth. In short, the university must persuade officials in charge at the education ministry that the creation of the department is urgently needed. These processes, which are preliminary in nature, go on for at least six months, but they nevertheless constitute “informal” consultations.

Once the head of the ministry’s section in charge, the director of the Bureau of Higher Education, and the education minister himself are convinced of the need to create the planned department, the university president receives a notice from the minister to file an application to create the new department by the end of the next academic year. In the process of preparing application documents of nearly 1,000 pages, the university gets frequent advice from the ministry’s section in charge, as details must be clearly stated on matters such as preparation of the curriculum, selection of faculty members, the need and significance of creating the department, the outcome of questionnaires sent to second-year high school students on their desire to enter the department, the results of surveys sent to businesses about their interest in hiring graduates from the department, and the significance of opening the new department in light of the present educational and research environment both at home and abroad.

The education minister instructing the university’s president to file an application means, for all intents and purposes, that the ministry has effectively given the go-ahead for creation of the new department. In other words, very seldom do experts at the advisory panel to the minister turn down the university’s application, except in two rare cases: When an irregularity in the procedure has been discovered, and when the university has failed to respond in good faith and appropriately to suggestions for improvements and to questions in the panel’s interim report sent to the university — usually in early June in preparation for the final decision, which is normally made in late August.

Returning to Kake Gakuen’s case, the charge by Kihei Maekawa, a former administrative vice education minister, that administrative decisions had been twisted by “the prime minister’s intent” indicates to me that Kake Gakuen did not follow the normal procedure required for getting approval for its plan to establish the new veterinary medicine department. In January, the government’s panel on nationally designated special districts decided that Okayama University of Science, a member of the Kake Gakuen group, be allowed to open a veterinary medicine department in Imabari. Kake Gakuen then filed an application with the education ministry on March 31 for opening the new department. It is unusual, to say the least, that the formal application was filed without preliminary consultations with the ministry or that the application documents were compiled in just three months — without the ministry examining the documents in advance.

Meanwhile, Kyoto Sangyo University, which also had planned to create a new department of veterinary medicine, had to give up filing the application per the ministry’s request on the grounds that it did not have enough time to prepare and faced difficulties in securing teaching staff. This decision by the university was to be expected because, as stated earlier, the ministry requesting a university to file the application effectively means informally approving the opening of the new department in two years’ time. It is inconceivable for a university to start hiring faculty members before such informal approval is obtained. That is why questions remain unanswered as to why and how Kake Gakuen had completed the lineup of teachers at its planned veterinary medicine department before obtaining a de facto go-ahead.

On Aug. 10, the education ministry panel said it had chosen to defer its decision on Kake Gakuen’s application for two reasons. One was that there are too many elderly members in the teaching staff. The other was that facilities for lecturing and experiments were deemed insufficient. Kake Gakuen responded by saying it would quickly make improvements so that the new department could be opened next April. It would be extremely difficult, however, to replace old teachers with younger ones in such a short time. Nor would it be easy to modify the designs of buildings already under construction.

In the past, there have been cases in which the ministry’s panel deferred its decision on similar applications. In most of those cases, such deferments concluded before the end of October, clearing the way for approving the applications. However, it would to hard to predict whether the panel would eventually approve or reject the application for creation of the veterinary medicine department at Okayama University of Science. Proponents of the plan say approval of the new department will create a hole in “bedrock regulations” governing university education. But paying due respect to the review being conducted by relevant experts in the field at the ministry panel does not constitute any part of the “bedrock” regulations. Rather, it is a part of the indispensable process for getting approval for creation of a new department at an institution of higher education.

Takamitsu Sawa is a distinguished professor at Shiga University.