Taiwan has too many colleges and too little spending per student, but a consensus is emerging only slowly on how the higher-educational system should be reformed.
Twenty years ago, passing the Joint College Entrance Examination was the single major challenge facing Taiwan's high school students. It was a difficult task considering that only 30% of the exam-takers got into college. But with the admission rate this year surpassing 80%, gaining entrance to college now is no longer a hard-to-achieve goal. The Ministry of Education even estimates that next year there will be more places in the universities than applicants seeking to fill them.
Oversupply has become the main problem faced by Taiwan's institutions of higher learning. What was a well-intentioned policy of making advanced studies available to a larger percentage of the population has had the unintended consequence of diluting the overall quality of the students going through the system. Holding a college degree no longer necessarily means being equipped with the knowledge needed to succeed in life and in the employment marketplace.
A recent report issued by the 104 Job Bank Corp. notes that more work opportunities are currently available than at any time in the past three years -- a total of 116,000 vacancies, 44,000 of them specifically suitable for new graduates. Yet an estimated 40% of this June's college graduates are still jobless, according to the report. "The reason for the high unemployment rate [for new graduates] is because most of them are not qualified for the job," says Rocky Young, the company's general manager. "The schools do not provide the human resources needed by the job market because the educational system and the teachers have not [adapted to] the needs of society."
A wide gap remains between job supply and demand. According to the report, engineering and science majors are the most sought-after in the job market, with the demand for employment in biotechnology having increased especially sharply. But industry leaders complain that too many professionals are still being trained in fields where there is little demand, such as geology, geography, physical education, and library science. And even the programs designed for electrical engineering or computer science majors are criticized as failing to impart the most up-to-date technical knowledge as required in the industry. Taiwan companies have poured billions of dollars into developing one of the world's leading flat-panel-display industries, for example, but no university has yet established a course specifically geared toward that discipline. "The industry can't find the right people, but many people can't find jobs" is a common concern.
The number of colleges in Taiwan has tripled within the past 10 years, from around 50 to 151, as an outcome of educational reforms aimed to allay the pressure on students over college admission. The government relaxed restrictions on the establishment of private schools and permitted vocational institutions to be upgraded to become colleges. In Taiwan, where per capita GNP last year came to US$12,268, college students now account for 3.3% of the population. That compares with 2.3% in Japan (with per capita GNP of US$32,522 in 2001) and 3.8% in the United States (US$35,478 in 2001).
But the budget for higher education -- which has increased by 2.2 times in 10 years -- has not kept pace with the tripling in the number of schools, even though the appropriation of NT$69.9 billion (US$2 billion) for the next fiscal year represents a record 49.3% of the government's total educational budget. The shortage of funds has meant that school facilities cannot be upgraded, and the impact is also felt on faculty salaries. "Money can't guarantee the quality of education, but without money, it is certain that quality can't be assured," says Paul Mu, president of Shih Hsin University, a private institution.
On the average, government funding per college student comes to around NT$150,000 (US$4,400) -- NT$180,000 for students in public universities and NT$120,000 for those in private schools -- far less than the nearly US$6,000 per student of ten years ago. The current level of spending is one-tenth that of Japan, one-fifth that of Hong Kong, and half that of South Korea, according to information provided by Chen Wei-chao, president of National Taiwan University (NTU). Even though the total funding on higher education, from both the government and private sectors, this year will exceed NT$180 billion (US$5.29 billion), the amount is still insufficient to meet the needs of the increased number of schools.
University presidents often complain that their budgets are much too tight, but the government -- fearing a voter backlash -- does not support a rise in tuition rates. "How can the government expect us to improve quality when it doesn't help us find financial support?" asks NTU's Chen. Taiwan has long been known for offering good education with low tuition, but college education these days has become a heavy burden for families as schools turn to students as a major financial resource. This year the average tuition for private colleges is nearly NT$100,000 (almost US$3,000) -- up NT$15,000 from ten years ago. At public institutions the tuition is about NT$50,000 -- NT$26,000 more than 10 years ago. The issue often draws protests from students and low-income families.
Many experts believe the government needs to reach a decision on whether its policy toward higher education should follow the model of countries with extensive social-welfare programs or those with stricter adherence to free-market practices. "Taiwan is sort of indecisive" on this point, says Wang Li-yun, assistant professor of education at National Taiwan Normal University. She maintains that since everyone is entitled to receive an education, the government should assume more responsibility, just as in most European countries. "Taking the American way [adopting a high-tuition policy] wouldn't be acceptable in Taiwan society," she says.
Chen Wei-chao also calls on the government to "come up with a clear-cut tuition policy, stick to it, and defend it when needed." Under the education ministry's regulations, universities are barred from raising tuition by more than 10% a year. But the ministry, giving in to the public pressure, this year admonished colleges not to raise tuition even when the adjustment rate was under 3%. Such a contradiction has made it very difficult for the schools to operate, Chen says.
Minister of Education Huang Jong-tsun notes that the government is devoting more financial resources to higher education than ever before, with 49.3% of the proposed NT$140 billion (US$4.1billlion) in government educational funding earmarked for colleges and universities in the next fiscal year. By international standards, he says, tuition in Taiwan is relatively low. But he concedes that the government is caught in a dilemma -- given concerns about social justice and the welfare of low-income families, "raising tuition is a very unpopular topic."
The ministry has tried to obtain increased funding, but that is not easy when the government is already financially strapped and the allocation of the budget gets caught up in political wrangling. Under current circumstances, the government's counter-measure is to lower the interest rate on tuition loans, lengthen the time for repayment, and limit the rate of tuition hikes from year to year. Minister Huang stresses that each school should try to improve its finances by seeking more donations and research grants, engaging in more cooperative projects with industry, and finding other ways to bring in revenue. "Colleges shouldn't totally rely on the government's support and the income from tuition," he notes.
Competition brings progress
Controlling the growth in the number of educational institutions is also one of the key methods being employed to tackle the current problems. The education ministry has begun carrying out such measures as placing a moratorium on the establishment of public universities, barring or delaying the establishment of new departments, blocking existing colleges from setting up branches, encouraging schools to merge, and freezing the total size of schools' enrollment.
Another focus in recent years has been to design an evaluation system to provide an objective criterion for distributing financial resources, and to pressure schools with poor performance to either improve or shut down. At a recent conference on this subject, the university presidents in attendance unanimously agreed that a fair evaluation conducted by an impartial committee would help bring about healthy competition. The question, though, is what constitutes a "fair" evaluation. A report by the ministry made public in late October, which stirred up considerable controversy on college campus, shows the challenge involved in coming up with a proper scheme. To evaluate each institution's academic excellence, the ministry counted the number of research papers its faculty members published last year in leading professional journals in the sciences, social sciences, and engineering. National Chengchi University (NCCU), generally perceived to be the country's second best institution after NTU and renowned for its social science programs, emerged with a ranking of only 48 -- and its students and faculty were incensed. Critics pointed out that the ministry's survey methods had penalized NCCU for its lack of engineering and medical schools. They also faulted the process for counting only the quantity of papers published, regardless of the quality of the journals that published them, and for selecting only international journals (mainly in English) while ignoring research papers published in Taiwan in Chinese language.
The ministry blamed the row on media misunderstanding of the nature of the evaluation. Minister Huang explained that the number of the journal papers published internationally was meant to be viewed as only part of a school's academic achievement, and that academic achievement is only part of the overall evaluation. According to a draft proposed by the ministry, the evaluation process will ensure a balanced focus on quality and quantity in looking at a school's performance in both instruction and research. The draft also proposed incorporating certain Taiwan academic journals in the calculation.
As the impact of globalization hits educational circles, Taiwan's universities can no longer adopt a closed-door policy toward the rest of the world. More and more educators see a pressing need for Taiwan's institutions of higher education to become more internationalized - and to achieve that goal, a top priority is to strengthen students' English ability.
The general command of English among Taiwanese cannot compete with such other Asian countries as Singapore, Hong Kong, and the Philippines given their British or U.S. colonial backgrounds. In the past, English was a required course in Taiwan for six years starting in middle school, but was taught for only one year in college. The result has been that many college graduates lack basic competence in English. Realizing the importance of English ability for Taiwan's competitiveness, the government has proposed designating English as a "quasi-official language," and in recent years, learning English has resembled a national campaign. Cram schools for language study are filled with students, parents enroll their children for English courses as early as kindergarten, and some colleges are now requiring students to pass an English proficiency test as a qualification for graduation.
Colleges are devising various means to create an English-speaking environment on campus. Teachers at NTU receive higher pay if they can give lectures in English, and Shih Hsin University has set up an "English Corner" where students are obliged to converse in English. Graduate students are now required to use English in seminars at National Chiao Tung University, Ming Chuan University has established a bilingual Graduate School of International Affairs, and NCCU has hired 37 foreign instructors, accounting for 6% of the faculty.
The most effective way to enable students to beef up their English capability, however, is widely believed to be bringing more foreign students to Taiwan campuses. It is projected that the number of degree-seeking foreign students enrolled in Taiwan universities will increase from the current 1,300 (accounting for only 0.7% of the entire college population) to more than 3,000 by 2008. That number would represent 4.2% of the student body, still lower than the standard set by Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The education ministry has agreed to provide NT$200 million (US$5,9 million) for subsidies to help attract more foreign students to come to Taiwan.
Traditionally, most foreign students come to Taiwan to study Chinese. But to attain the goal of elevating domestic colleges' academic quality through internationalization, Taiwan's schools will need to integrate more foreign students into regular courses. Besides Chinese-language studies, says Minister Huang, Taiwan has many other disciplines in which it could be quite competitive. He cites the level of Taiwan's academic achievements in such fields as electronics, nano engineering, medicine, and biomedical studies.
Recently Taiwan's schools have made additional strides towards internationalization. Last month, the University System of Taiwan - made up of the four public institutions of Central, Chiao Tung, Tsinghua, and Yangming Universities -- signed an agreement with the University of Maryland to intensify academic interchanges. In what is the first formal cooperation scheme between universities in the two nations, Taiwanese students will be able to take courses in Maryland and Maryland students at the Taiwan campuses, with course credit accepted by their home university. The participating schools will also provide facilities needed for distance education.
In this wave of educational internationalization, contact with China must also be taken into account. As cross-Strait relations have intensified, more and more students have chosen to study in China because of its abundant academic resources and to pave the way for career development in China. For political reasons (mainly concern that studying in China will affect students' political thinking), degrees from Chinese universities are not acknowledged by Taiwan's education ministry. Nevertheless, it is estimated that some 10,000 students are either currently studying in China or have already obtained Chinese diplomas and are waiting for them to be acknowledged in Taiwan.
The government is facing mounting pressure to solve the problem, with critics arguing that the current stance is unreasonable considering that Chinese degrees are recognized all over the world. A recent amendment to the Statute Governing Relations between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area proposed to allow China's universities to recruit students in Taiwan. Once the law is revised, it means the government will be ready to acknowledge mainland degrees.
Some are worried that Taiwan's accession to the World Trade Organization, under whose regulations schools from all over the world are permitted to recruit in Taiwan, will affect the enrollment of domestic colleges with inferior performance. But most observers consider that the major threat in this regard will come from schools in China. The best defense, the government appears to have concluded, is to substantially enhance the quality and reputation of Taiwan's universities. The government recently initiated a plan, requiring an investment of NT$50 billion (about US$1.5 billion) within five years, aimed at boosting at least one domestic institution into the ranks of the 100 best universities worldwide and to help ten individual departments to become number one in Asia. If the plan succeeds, the educational stature that Taiwan attains would have profound implications for the business community and for all other elements of society looking to raise standards of excellence.