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Lingering questions haunt Kake vet school set to be OK'd by minister

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe raises his hand during a session of the House of Representatives Committee on Budget in this July 24, 2017 file photo. (Mainichi)

An education ministry panel has recommended that the controversial plan for Kake Educational Institution to open a new veterinary school in Ehime Prefecture be green-lighted, despite allegations that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a close friend of the institution's head, may have influenced the approval process.

While the ministry's Council for University Chartering and School Juridical Person filed a report recommending that education minister Yoshimasa Hayashi endorse the institution's plan to establish a vet department in a national strategic special zone, shoddy procedures relating to the plan emerged during the panel's screening, with some panel members harshly criticizing the project. Even within the ruling coalition, there are growing calls for Prime Minister Abe to provide an in-depth explanation over the matter.

"I have confirmed that the school plan meets the four conditions," education minister Hayashi declared at a press conference on Nov. 10. He was referring to the conditions the government set for establishing a new veterinary department after the Cabinet approved deregulation programs in 2015. The four conditions are: 1) a concrete veterinarian education plan that does not already exist can be developed; 2) demand for veterinarians in new fields such as the life sciences has become evident; 3) it is difficult for existing institutions to meet this demand 4) the institution is necessary considering the supply and demand for veterinarians in recent years from a nationwide perspective.

During the roughly 15-minute press meeting, Hayashi repeatedly emphasized that he has "confirmed" the Kake vet school plan's compatibility with those four conditions, but stopped short of providing concrete grounds for his assertion.

Kake Educational Institution was picked to operate a new veterinary school in a national strategic special zone in January this year by the national strategic special zone council chaired by Prime Minister Abe. In March, the school operator filed an application to set up a new department with the education ministry panel, which is tasked with screening school curriculums and the financial situations of school operators.

While a school operator is essentially supposed to have cleared those four conditions at the stage where the national strategic special zone council selects it as the operator of a new school, various questions were raised about Kake's plan during the ensuing education ministry panel screening.

Although the education ministry panel is not required to judge whether the applicant school operator meets those four conditions during its screening, some items up for review by the panel overlap with those discussed by the national strategic special zone council, such as whether there is demand for veterinarians in new fields and how to implement a curriculum that is difficult for existing institutions to provide.

In May, the education ministry panel criticized the Kake vet school plan, saying, "It is unclear why the new school is necessary and how much concrete demand there is for it." Kake institution offers life science research as part of its curriculum, which it claims is difficult for other institutions to offer. But on this point, the panel called for improvements, saying, "Questions have been raised over whether the research field's characteristics are sufficiently reflected in the vet school's curriculum."

A source close to Kake Educational Institution confided, "Before we applied for approval to open a new school, we conducted a questionnaire targeting businesses over potential demand for veterinarians, but our data collection method might have been somewhat slack."

As the vet school plan was found to be fraught with many deficiencies, suspicions grew that the initial screening by the national strategic special zone council was premised from the outset on choosing Kake as the operator of a new vet school.

Tatsuo Hatta, a professor emeritus at Osaka University who serves as a member of the national strategic special zone council, said, "Over the past 50 years, it has been prohibited under an education ministry notice for school operators to apply for approval (to open a new vet school) by going through education ministry panel screening.

"The special exception under the national strategic special zone system is aimed at deregulating the process, and the role of the system was fulfilled in March when the application for approval (to open a vet school) was accepted (by the education ministry panel). I'm not in a position to comment on the decision by the education ministry panel," he said.

Many questions still remain unanswered over the Kake scandal, including whether the approval process was influenced by the prime minister's intentions. "There remain plenty of issues that will come under criticism in the Diet. Government approval (for the opening of the vet school) wouldn't mean that the curtain has been drawn on the scandal," said a source close to the government.

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