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Japan minister apologizes for comments downplaying inequality among university test takers

Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Koichi Hagiuda is seen speaking before the press at the ministry in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, on Oct. 28, 2019. (Mainichi/Kohei Chiwaki)

TOKYO -- Education Minister Koichi Hagiuda apologized on Oct. 28 after saying that students should "compete for university places in accordance with their standing."

Hagiuda had made the comment in response to questions on a TV show about the introduction of private English tests for university entrance exams from the 2020 academic year.

"It was an insufficient statement that may have left some exam-taking students feeling dissatisfied. I wish to apologize," the minister told reporters at the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology.

The use of private English tests will affect admission exam takers who are currently in their second year of high school and onwards. The options for the private English tests include the Eiken, or Test in Practical English Proficiency; the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL); and the Global Test of English Communication (GTEC).

Third grade students will have two opportunities to take the tests, which must then be included as part of the grades they provide to their desired universities to try to gain admission. But there is no set limit to the number of tests first and second grade students can take as practice runs.

It is expected that prices for taking some of the tests will be high, and that urban areas will have more venues holding the exams, leading to accusations the scheme highlights economic and regional disparities. Reflecting on his remarks, Hagiuda said, "I was thinking that I want students to seize their appropriate chances, and give their all in both tests."

On Oct. 24, a panelist on a Fuji Satellite Broadcasting Inc. television show asked Hagiuda, "Aren't students (taking the exams) who have been fortunate geographically or financially at an advantage?"

Hagiuda responded, "If you put it that way, then it's the same as calling your friend who goes to an exam preparation school a cheat for doing so. Children from wealthy households may be able to warm up for these tests by practicing multiple times, but people should choose to compete for university places in accordance with their standing and do both tests."

On the subject of geographical disparities, he said, "We have, as much as possible, entreated business and organizations to create suitable venues near to communities, but the will to leave your hometown once or twice to take the test, that kind of feeling of nervousness, that's very important."

His comments invited public opprobrium, with users on Twitter posting comments including, "Is he telling poor people in regional areas to know their place?" Others said the content of what he said contravened the rights described in the Basic Act on Education.

The act reads, "The people must be given equal opportunities to receive an education suited to their abilities, and must not be subjected to discrimination in education on account of race, creed, sex, social status, economic position, or family origin."

Hirokazu Ouchi, a professor in education at Chukyo University, tweeted, "The statement (from Mr. Hagiuda) acknowledges disparity in education from differences in financial situations. The "standing" he refers to here is not "an individual's effort," it refers to the means of the household a student comes from. His response goes against the equality of opportunity in education set down in the Basic Act on Education."

The government however, has not chastised the minister. At a morning press conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said that Hagiuda is "the right man in the right job." He added he was "not aware" of the gist of the minister's remarks and would therefore refrain from commenting.

(Japanese original by Kohei Chiwaki, City News Department, Shinya Oba, Integrated Digital News Center and Shinichi Akiyama, Political News Department)

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