The arrest of a senior education ministry official on suspicion of accepting a bribe from Tokyo Medical University over the government’s research subsidy program may be yet another indication of alleged collusion between the ministry, with its administrative and budgetary powers over education policy, and private universities, which face increasingly tight enrollment competition as the nation’s pool of potential students shrinks. The suspected collusion was also believed to be at the root of the scandal that broke last year involving the ministry’s bureaucrats landing post-retirement jobs at private universities. The prosecutors’ investigation should seek to shed more light on what lies behind the suspected bribery.

Futoshi Sano, 58, director general of the ministry’s Science and Technology Policy Bureau, was arrested last week on suspicion of providing a favor to Tokyo Medical University by selecting the institution as a recipient of a government research subsidy in fiscal 2017 in return for the university granting a place to Sano’s son after it padded his entrance exam scores. If the allegations are true, the case points to a blatant abuse of administrative power by the senior bureaucrat of the ministry, which is supposed to distribute the subsidy on a competitive basis and provide guidance to universities to ensure fairness in entrance exams.

Under a program launched in 2016 to support the management reform of private universities, institutions across Japan apply for government subsidies for their research projects, and the ministry provides subsidies to select universities after the projects are screened by a panel of experts. The “research branding” program is aimed at helping the universities by promoting research that could potentially develop into hallmark projects.

About ¥5.5 billion was set aside for the program in 2017, and 60 out of 188 universities that applied for the subsidies were chosen as recipients, including Tokyo Medical University, which was granted ¥35 million after failing to be selected for the program the previous year. Prosecution investigators suspect that the university, whose president, Mamoru Suzuki, and board of regents chairman, Masahiko Usui, both resigned after the scandal broke, asked Sano for the favor to ensure that the school would be granted a subsidy in 2017.

Sano, who was demoted after his arrest, was serving as head of the education minister’s secretariat when he was allegedly approached by the university and provided the favor in May last year — just after the ministry was rocked by the amakudari scandal in which its officials and former bureaucrats were accused of years of organized efforts to arrange jobs for retiring ministry officials at private universities in violation of the law governing national government workers.

A probe into the scandal was launched after a former director general of the ministry’s Higher Education Bureau — the position in charge of authorizing the creation of new universities or departments as well as the distribution of government subsidies among the institutions — landed a post-retirment professorship at Waseda University. In wrapping up its in-house investigation in March last year, the ministry said it confirmed that 62 cases violated the legal regulations concerning amakudari, and punished more than 40 officials, including three former administrative vice ministers. Sano himself was reprimanded for his supervisory responsibility.

Behind that scandal lay the efforts by private universities to build connections with the ministry and its bureaucrats as they faced increasing competition in the higher education business amid the declining youth population. However, the ministry’s probe did not delve into the question of whether favors were provided to the universities that offered jobs to the retiring bureaucrats in terms of the distribution of government subsidies and other matters over which the ministry holds power. Officials were punished over the illegal amakudari practice, but it was never made clear whether collusive ties between the ministry and the universities were behind the practice.

The ongoing investigation into the case of Sano and Tokyo Medical University provides a chance to delve deeper into this issue. There are allegations that the top official of the university became acquainted with Sano by way of a former medical consulting firm executive — who has also been arrested for allegedly assisting the bribery — for the purpose of requesting favors in connection with its application to the subsidy program, and was involving in manipulating the entrance exam scores of Sano’s son. The probe should seek to expose the structure of the relationship between the education bureaucracy and private universities that has created an environment conducive to bribery.

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