Taiwan has long been a society that places strong emphasis on education at all levels. Now WTO entry and market demand is widening the opportunities for both students and educational institutions.
By T.M. Moriarty
Foreigners newly arrived in Taiwan are often struck by how pervasive education seems to be in this society. What impresses them is not just the youngsters toting heavy bookbags to and from school. It's also the crowds of students attending supplementary English-language classes, the many office workers taking night courses to advance their career opportunities, and the number of young scholars annually returning from graduate institutions around the world.
With Taiwan's recent entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), the pressures of internationalization are expected to bring in added competition to propel Taiwan to new levels of educational attainment. The fundamental respect for education among the people of Taiwan has spurred development of education as a business sector and has brought expectations that both the quantity and quality of education will continue to rise.
The demand for learning, after all, is a Chinese cultural tradition. In imperial China, the egalitarian examination system made it possible for anyone with sufficient knowledge to rise to the ranks of officialdom. In more modern times, Sun Yat-sen made emphasis on education an integral part of his political philosophy, the Three Principles of the People (the pursuit of democracy, nationalism and the well-being of the people) -- and a commitment to education was expressly incorporated into the Republic of China's Constitution. The Taiwan government devoted 17% of the national budget to educational programs in 2001, and the level of private spending on education -- such as on cram schools (bushibans) and private tutors - eclipses that of most Western nations. In all, almost 8% of GNP goes toward education.
Supplementary schooling in itself is a large industry. Bushibans range in size from a single classroom to four-story buildings. In Taipei alone, more than 1,600 registered bushibans supply extra instruction to anybody willing to pay.
A need for English
AmCham's 2001 Business Confidence Survey cites the "lack of prominence of the English language" as the biggest routine operational obstacle to doing business in Taiwan for foreign investors. Compared with some nearby countries that underwent British or American colonial rule -- notably Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines -- Taiwan cannot match the same standard of English proficiency. Government officials at the highest level now seem to recognize that if Taiwan is to play a central role in the global economy and attract more companies to set up regional headquarters here, its citizens must be able to communicate effectively in the language of global business: English.
President Chen Shui-bian has called for English to be given priority attention in the educational system, and has suggested that in future English could be designated as a "quasi-official language" (though what that would mean in practice has not been explained). The new Challenge 2008 six-year-plan being put together by the government places unprecedented emphasis on English training -- beginning with courses to raise the foreign-language competence of civil servants.
English-language education is in high demand. Currently, providers like the Hess Educational Organization and the Princeton, New Jersey-based Berlitz International are among those servicing the top end of the market. Hess, founded in 1983 by Karen Hess and Joseph Chu and now a household name in Taiwan, operates more than 100 language schools, 40 bilingual kindergartens, and a series of Foundation Schools for high-school age children and professionals island-wide. The division known as Foreign Language for Professionals works under contract to many of Taiwan's biggest companies to train corporate employees in English-language skills. These corporate partnerships have established Hess as one of the leading private educational organizations in Taiwan.
At its offices on Taipei's Chunghsiao East Road, Berlitz -- one of the best-known names around the world in language training but operating in Taiwan only since 1996 -- is seeking to expand its share of the domestic English-language market. Country Manager Revital S. Golan says the main reason for Berlitz's increased attention to this market is Taiwan's accession to the WTO. "For Berlitz, the main focus is on the corporate market," she explains. "We see great potential here following entry to the WTO because Taiwan companies know they can prosper along with China's growth if they can be a link between China and the Western world. But to do that, they have to be able to communicate well with both sides -- and we're here to help them improve their ability to communicate with the West."
Golan says Berlitz plans to open several more language centers in Taipei within the next few years, and also to establish one in Hsinchu close to most of the high-tech companies. She is confident that the company's long professional experience will enable it to attract an increasing number of corporate customers from among both domestic and multinational companies. To aid in that effort, a revolutionary new approach to language learning -- BerlitzEnglishTM -- will be launched in Taiwan in November, integrating classroom instruction with supplementary materials on the Internet, on CD-ROM, and in printed form.
Besides teaching English, Berlitz is also offering classes in Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, French, and Portuguese, as well as cross-cultural training, translation, and interpretation services for multinational companies.
During the prolonged negotiations that led up to Taiwan's admittance to the WTO at the beginning of this year, the Taiwan government agreed to implement four substantial market-opening reforms with regard to education.
The first, which was carried out through revisions to the Private Schools Law passed by the Legislative Yuan in 1997, allows foreign individuals to establish senior high schools, vocational schools, colleges, and universities in Taiwan for the first time. The chairman of the board and principal of the institution must be an ROC citizen, however, and the number of foreign nationals serving on the board may not exceed five persons or one-third of the total. At least at the initial stage, foreign universities are prohibited from setting up branch campuses here.
In addition, the law was revised to allow distance-learning programs to be offered and to permit foreign educational recruiting organizations to operate in Taiwan. Another statute, the Bushiban and Advanced Education Law, was also changed to make it easier for foreigners to set up supplementary schools in this country.
So far, the regulatory liberalization that has led to the most activity is the one involving long-distance learning. A large number of such courses are already being offered by institutions in the U.S., Australia, Britain, and Canada, giving Taiwanese the option of studying at home to get a degree from an international institution instead of having to go overseas to take courses. Among the most popular courses in this market are those geared toward MBA or EMBA degrees.
Those offering distance-learning programs here are not required to register with the Ministry of Education, but the ministry has set two stipulations: the distance-learning courses cannot be offered in Chinese, only in foreign languages, and the students must physically go abroad to complete the final course in the program and receive their certification.
Many of the courses involve the use of Internet videoconferencing equipment, enabling Taiwanese students to participate in web-based courses together with classmates from all over the world. Recently introduced have been joint programs that allow Taiwanese students to take Internet classes from overseas universities as part of courses of study leading to a degree from domestic educational institutions.
Representatives from 20 American educational institutions -- including the Harvard Business School and the Association of Independent Kentucky Colleges and Universities -- recently came to Taiwan to discuss plans for their Internet curriculums at a forum sponsored by a local company.
According to Ministry of Education estimates, only about one-third of the distance-learning programs currently being promoted by domestic companies are fully accredited by overseas degree-granting institutions. Officials are encouraging the wider dissemination of accurate information to help students select the most appropriate programs, and they also express hope that the signing of more formal agreements between foreign schools and local companies will help to bring greater order to this business.
Taiwan sends about 60,000 students overseas annually, primarily to the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia, Japan, and China. Some of them, less than confident about their ability to find a suitable school and gain admittance, go through brokers to make the arrangements. While such "educational recruiting companies" never faced great hardship in operating in Taiwan, the revision to the law inspired by Taiwan's WTO application has made their legal status much firmer.
Now referred to formally as "overseas-learning service companies," the brokers are permitted to collect fees for the information and services they provide, but are barred from handling the tuition payments, which students are required to pay directly to the overseas educational institutions.
The U.S. has traditionally been the destination of choice for Taiwanese seeking advanced education. Educational links between the two countries are deeply rooted. So many of the political leaders have tended to be foreign-educated that five-sixths of the cabinet members during the Lee Teng-hui administration had graduate degrees from American schools (Lee himself is a Ph.d. in agricultural economics from Cornell). The same phenomenon could be found in academia and among younger business executives.
Taiwanese continue to go to the United States for study - mainly in computer science and engineering at the undergraduate level, and in a wide range of fields at the graduate level.
But while the United States continues to take the lion's share of Taiwan's overseas students, the absolute number of Taiwanese students in the United States has been declining markedly -- from about 32,000 in 1996 to about 28,000 this past year. American schools are encountering increasing competition from other countries, especially from Britain, Canada, and Australia, in attracting students from Taiwan. The Ministry of Education estimates that about 13,000 Taiwanese students are now enrolled in British educational institutions.
Increasing numbers of Taiwanese students are choosing schools in Australia, both to be somewhat closer to home and because tuition costs tend to be somewhat lower than in the United States. Well over half of them are enrolled in post-graduate programs, and they typically already have good skill-levels in English language and their major disciplines. While most apply directly to the schools they are interested in, a good many go through recruiting companies such as IDP Education Australia and Australia Education International (AE), the two largest Australian educational promotion organizations.
Promoters rely heavily on education fairs to spread information about educational opportunities in Australia, but they are trying to provide more personalized services to students who already know what they are looking for and have a basic familiarity with the Australian education system. IDP recently held a showcase at the Howard Plaza Hotel that gave prospective applicants the chance to sit down for interviews with representatives from their schools of choice. Registering with the Australian promoters - especially IDP, which represents the interests of 37 different Australian institutions -- allows Taiwanese to gain a broader picture of the options available to them.
The pathways to these new education markets are being increasingly well established through the efforts of such organizations as the Canadian Education Center and the British Council, and the Taiwanese are gradually growing more knowledgeable about educational options available outside the United States. Conditions that have made the U.S. stand out as a good place for Taiwanese to study -- a large overseas Taiwanese population, substantial commercial interchange, and extensive links between educational institutions -- are now increasingly true of the other English-speaking countries as well.
The drop in the number of students going to the U.S. also partially reflects the increasing attractiveness of China to young Taiwanese as a place for higher education. An estimated 4,000 Taiwanese are currently studying on the mainland, even though the Taiwan government does not recognize mainland degrees. The most popular fields of study in the PRC are law, Chinese medicine, and accounting.
An increasingly popular trend among Taiwanese is to go abroad for short-term or medium-term language training. A Hess division called the Hess International Education Institute sends students on study tours to the United States, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Canada for periods of one week to one month. The study tours enable participants to combine classes with sightseeing, and the students usually stay in dormitories or hostels.
High-school age students around Taiwan participate actively in international exchange programs. Taiwan's Rotary Clubs, for example, annually sponsor about fifty students to go abroad on one-year exchanges. At the Rotary Youth Exchange gathering for returning students, participants recently shared experiences from their visits to thirteen countries in North and South America, Asia, Europe, and Oceania. They glowed with excitement while giving their five-minute speeches.
At the university level, temporary study overseas is also increasingly common. Many local educational institutions offer semester-abroad programs in cooperation with foreign universities. National Sun Yat-sen University (NSYU) in Kaohsiung has one of the most extensive such off-campus study programs, sending students to locations across Europe and North America every year.
So many young people have already had travel or study experience in the U.S. that they have developed a "been there, done that" attitude toward American educational opportunities and are now looking for something different. Vanessa Ge, a first-year business administration student at NSYU, has signed up to attend the Lyon Institute of Business Management in France next fall. Patti Wen, a sophomore at the same school, is also headed to France. In her case, the motivation is chiefly the French boyfriend she met while taking part in a Rotary exchange program.
National Chengchi University (NCCU) in the Taipei suburb of Mucha has long been considered one of Taiwan's best institutions academically. Now it is gaining an additional reputation for innovation and internationalization. Up to one-third of the regular courseload is currently taught in English, and when hiring new instructors, the university increasingly gives preference to those with teaching experience at American or other overseas institutions. It is also hiring more native English-speakers, a trend that Li Chen-ching, director of the Ministry of Education's Bureau of International Cultural and Educational Relations, says is likely to catch on with other universities: "Slowly, all of the schools will move in this direction."
A new International MBA program at NCCU's College of Commerce, now in its second year, is the first graduate program in Taiwan in which all courses are taught entirely in English. The enrollment this year consists of 21 foreign and 17 local students, with the foreign students largely attracted by the chance to prepare themselves for business careers involving China or the Asian region. Among the corporate sponsors supporting the program are such leading domestic business groups as Acer, Fubon, China Motor, and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing. After this first effort to internationalize itself, the university is now planning to introduce another three English-language programs by 2005, specializing in Taiwan studies, China studies, and international communications.
The NCCU approach may not remain unique in Taiwan for long. MIT's prestigious Sloan School of Management is currently in discussion with several of Taiwan's leading universities about cooperating to establish an Asian Entrepreneurial Development Center in Taiwan. Financing is being sought from Taiwan government agencies, as well as international and domestic private corporations. The Taipei-based Epoch Foundation is taking a leading role in the domestic fundraising drive.
Plans call for the center to offer both a degree program patterned after the Entrepreneurial Center at the Sloan School and non-degree courses designed to help promote entrepreneurship, innovation, and start-up companies throughout Asia. All of the instruction would be in English, for students from throughout the region.
These initiatives are feasible only because of a new mindset taking hold among Taiwan's university administrators. "In the past, Taiwan's universities adopted a closed-door policy," says NCCU president Cheng Jei-cheng. "Not only didn't they maintain contact [with overseas institutions], but all the paths of communication were closed off. The attitude was 'I don't want outsiders to see what's going on in my school.' Now more people understand that we should open up and make our faculty face reality. Only in this way will our students get to broaden their vision by meeting different people and seeing different cultures."
But the universities are worrying about the potential impact of WTO entry. At the same time as foreign educational recruiters are active in Taiwan in increasing numbers, domestic institutions are already facing declining enrollments. Besides the foreign competition, demographics present a challenge, as the university-age population in Taiwan is projected to continue to decrease. Top-tier schools like National Taiwan University and NCCU may not face any problems in attracting students, but for less prestigious institutions the new environment could be a severe challenge.
To deal with the problem, recent reforms have sought to bring more flexibility to the university system, for example allowing academic departments from multiple institutions to pool their resources and admit students into joint programs. The government has also ended the controversial joint entrance examination system, introducing less rigid admission procedures that will make it easier for more students to qualify for higher education.
The Bushiban Muddle
Foreign companies have long encountered difficulties trying to break into the English-language-teaching industry. A complicated set of laws regulating the bushibans is part of the problem. Another is that the Ministry of Education may set overall policy, but implementation is the responsibility of the education bureaus at the city and county levels.
With the aim of ensuring that the motive behind the operation of bushibans was the promotion of education rather than making a profit, the regulations for years prohibited bushibans from being organized as corporations. Instead they had to be sole proprietorships, with a single individual taking full responsibility. When those individuals were foreign entrepreneurs, they often found themselves in conflict with the authorities over varying interpretations of the rules. At one time, they also needed to have local sponsors.
The system was somewhat liberalized this summer with the adoption of new Bushiban Management Guidelines by the Taipei City Government and many other municipalities around the island. Under the new guidelines, corporations registered under the Company Law may operate bushibans. Local nationals, however, should hold a majority of the shares.
The change potentially solves one previous problem: in the past, bushibans were allowed to engage in educational activities only. They could not legally operate related businesses such as publishing, translating, or conducting conferences, which was a major handicap. Now, if the schools register as companies, those restrictions on business cope are lifted.
But the question of majority ownership is still left as what one informed observer, a foreigner serving in an educational promotion capacity, calls "a huge gray area." "Because of sensitivities about WTO compliance, no one in government is going to tell a foreign applicant that his company can't have majority or even sole control," says the observer. "What happens is that things just get dragged out. It's possible, if you jump through hoops, to finally get approval, but the process is far from easy."
At Berlitz, Revital Golan admits to frequent frustrations with the regulations governing the operation of language schools. "It seems like things in Taiwan are moving in the right direction," she says, "but I just wish it was happening more quickly."