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Cover Story: Grading Taiwan's Higher Education

Gone are the days when a rigorous national college entrance exam meant that admission to college was highly selective. As a result of the huge increase in the number of colleges and universities in recent years, practically everyone who wants a higher education can now get admitted. But there are troubling questions about the quality of the education being provided, and whether it is preparing students well for life in the real world. Tuition is low compared with other countries, but so are professors’ salaries, opening the way for many of the best teachers to be poached by other countries. Student-faculty ratios are relatively high. Reformers have various suggestions for how the situation should be improved.

- By Jane Rickards 

Are Taiwanese university and college students actually learning things that can be put to practical use?

 

It’s a question currently on the minds of many education experts. Wide-reaching educational reforms that started a decade ago with the ideal of creating universal higher education have radically transformed Taiwan’s colleges and universities. A degree is no longer a privilege reserved for Taiwan’s intellectual elite but is now freely available. But with this broadening of opportunity, educational standards appear to have eroded significantly.

 

Academia Sinica President Wong Chi-huey says flatly that there are now too many colleges and universities. Including police and military academies, Taiwan is now home to a total of 173 institutions of higher education – 64 public ones and 109 private – which is 101 more than existed in 1991. At the full university level, there are 53 regular and teacher-training institutions and 38 polytechnic universities.

 

A large proportion of young people are now enrolled in universities and colleges. Around two decades ago, says Ni Chou-hwa, a section chief with the Ministry of Education’s Department of Higher Education, around 16% of high school students annually could pass the entrance exam and enter a university. Now, higher education is becoming almost universal. Citing OECD Indicators 2007, Lin Wan-I, a National Taiwan University professor and formerly a minister without portfolio under the Democratic Progressive Party administration, notes that 65% of Taiwan’s 19-year-olds were enrolled in a tertiary institution in 2005, a situation aided by rising household affluence levels in addition to the expansion in the number of colleges. Only South Korea, at 72%, had a higher figure for the same age group, with the United States standing at 49% and Australia at 35%. “Taiwan and Korea really value study,” says Lin. MOE statistics show that in 2007 a total of 230,230 students graduated with an undergraduate degree, 53,470 received a Master's degree, and 3,106 a doctorate.

 

Yet in terms of quality of education, at least as measured by international rankings, Taiwan is not faring as well as its Asian neighbors. According to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2008, only one Taiwanese university – National Taiwan University – ranked within the top 200 internationally (it came in at 124, a slip from 104th place a year earlier). Taiwan’s other star universities – National Tsing Hua, National Chiao Tung and National Cheng Kung universities – were all excluded. Meanwhile, the University of Hong Kong received a stellar ranking at 26, and three other Hong Kong universities also made it to the top 200. The National University of Singapore was ranked the 30th best university in the world, and Peking University tied with Seoul National University for 50th place.

 

In calculating these scores, 40% is based on academic peer review through a worldwide online survey, 20% on the frequency of citation of faculty members’ papers in academic journals, 20% on the student-faculty ratio, 10% on a global online survey of employers, and 5% each on the proportion of international students and international faculty.

 

In terms of academic papers published internationally, Taiwan does slightly better. According to a Thomson Scientific study of nations that have produced the largest numbers of elite scientific papers over the last decade, Taiwan ranked 13th, behind such other Asia countries as China and South Korea, with the U.S. ranking no. 1. Taiwan was also 13th in terms of publications falling within the top 1% of papers most cited in other works, just behind India and South Korea. Research from Taiwan’s National Applied Research Laboratories, an independent, non-profit institute, shows that in 2007 Taiwan ranked 16th internationally in terms of its output of academic papers in the social sciences and 11th in engineering.

 

“Given Taiwan’s resources and size, this is remarkable,” says Academia Sinica’s Wong of the Thomson study. He points out that Asian countries ranking higher in the study – such as Japan, Korea, and China – have much larger populations. But others are less impressed. Taiwan should be performing better, given its large number of universities, says Lin. “Logically, we should therefore have many professors, leading to many publications. But actually there are not that many [papers]. And their quality, in terms of academic citations, has had even less impact.”

 

Financial pressures

 

Undoubtedly Taiwan’s higher education is now suffering from a chronic shortage of funding. “Student numbers have increased around three times (since the reforms), but corresponding contributions from the government and educational institutions haven’t matched the growth,” says the MOE’s Ni. “Our resources are relatively scant.” In 1980, he says, government investment in higher education, including spending on facilities and teachers, stood at around NT$200,000 per student at public universities. Today the figure has sunk as low as NT$130,000, and for cash-strapped private universities that are both privately and publicly funded, investment per student can be as low as NT$110,000. Lee Tien-rein, president of the private Chinese Culture University and also of Taiwan’s Association of Private Universities and Colleges, notes that neighbors Korea and Japan spend more on higher education.

 

In marked contrast to the United States, public universities rather than their private counterparts tend to be Taiwan’s elite institutions. Private colleges and universities are easier to enter and tend to attract more students from poorer families and rural areas. Tuition fees are relatively cheap across the board. For the social sciences and humanities, Lin says, tuition amounts to around NT$110,000 per year at private universities and around NT$30,000 at public universities – compared with as much as US$39,000 at a private U.S. university.

 

Teacher-student ratios reflect the lower cost. Citing his NTU department of sociology and social work as an example, Lin says the student-teacher ratio is around 18 students per teacher. Taiwan’s private universities, which lack the generous endowments and gifts from alumni and corporations that are common in the United States, need to enroll as many students as they can to increase income – leading to ratios as high as 27 students per teacher. In comparison, Oxford’s ratio is 1:4, the University of Chicago 1:5.6, Yale 1:6, and Harvard 1:13.

 

Lee of Chinese Culture University says it is particularly hard for private universities to recruit good professors, as teachers generally prefer working in the public sector because of the better retirement benefits, with pensions equaling 80% of their previous annual salaries. The shortage of qualified instructors at private universities is especially serious in such disciplines as the humanities, management, business administration, and the social sciences, says NTU’s Lin. Some schools therefore often assign Ph.D.-holders to teach courses outside their area of specialization, diluting the quality of the instruction. Jason Kao, an education specialist with the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research, describes the improvement of student-teacher ratios as critical. “It’s important that professors be able to nurture students’ interests and talents and give them further direction,” he says.

 

Considering the financial pressures and growing enrollments, Taiwanese professors are also becoming chronically over-worked, with the result that many of Taiwan’s top scholars are being poached by neighbors such as China and Hong Kong, which can pay up to four times more than Taiwan, where a typical professor earns NT$100,000 a month. “The work loads are too heavy and the compensation is too low,” says Academia Sinica's Wong.

 

Low pay also makes it hard for Taiwan to attract leading foreign scholars, who could help energize the academic environment. “We need a merit-based approach to compensation, otherwise we cannot attract the best people,” says Wong. Along with other experts, he has criticized Taiwan’s educational system for awarding the same pay to all academics of a given rank, regardless of their individual talent. Seeking to change this approach, Academia Sinica launched a system for rewarding top academics with more pay and the title of “distinguished research fellow.” Taiwan’s top-tier universities have adopted a similar system within the past few years.

 

Another problem is that Taiwan’s technical institutes, junior colleges, and polytechnic universities – which made a distinct contribution to Taiwan’s economic industrial development over recent decades by concentrating on teaching practical, industry-related skills – are now regarded as losing their edge. Educational experts attribute that mainly to a government policy adopted around six years ago that allowed many technical colleges to upgrade their status to that of a university. Along with that upgrading, these institutions tended to become more academic in their orientation and out of touch with industry, even though their students – many of them senior vocational high school graduates – may not be very academically inclined.

 

Further, these schools now frequently offer doctoral or other post-graduate programs, and compete with Taiwan’s top universities for research grants from the National Science Council. In the new environment, polytechnic instructors must concentrate on getting research papers published if they want to climb the academic ladder, and the curriculum is increasingly becoming filled with watered-down versions of standard university courses. Academia Sinica’s Wong warns that this trend will eventually impact on the industrial sector as new graduates lack the technical skills of their predecessors.

 

Lin, for his part, argues that it is socially counter-productive for 65% of 19-year-olds to be enrolled in a college or university. Many students are wasting their time and will inevitably wind up in jobs that don’t require so much education. “Their teachers may not have the appropriate training or understanding of the labor market,” Lin says.

 

Questions of fairness

 

The Taiwanese people prize fairness and equal opportunity, and as with other Confucian societies, they highly respect education. But with those values comes a crushing pressure to conform, experts told TOPICS. Parents tend to view a university degree as a matter of social status and a place in the middle class, irregardless of their children’s talents. “Carpenters and plumbers make good money,” says Lee. “We can’t keep emphasizing only one single value.”

 

On the other hand, says Academia Sinica’s Wong, extremely talented students may be unable to flourish as there is cultural pressure not to be different from other students. “Some of these students do even better when they go abroad. People here become afraid that receiving exceptional treatment isn’t fair,” he says. But despite the emphasis on fairness, striking inequalities still exist. For example, students with rich parents who can afford to send them to bushibans (cram schools) are more likely to qualify to attend an elite public university with lower tuition.

 

Compared with the past, there is relatively less emphasis on rote learning and more on creativity and independent thinking, but experts say there is still considerable room for improvement. Taiwanese students tend to be more passive than their American peers, says Wong, and are adept at following orders and working hard. This is partially a result of the practice of enrolling children in bushibans from an early age, which gives them less time to play and develop their creativity. TIER’s Kao stresses that creativity and critical thinking rather than rote memorization will be increasingly vital in future as Taiwan adapts to the needs of a knowledge-based economy. Theoretically that transition should also involve a heightened demand for a highly educated work force. But paradoxically – well before the current economic downturn – it appeared that the supply of college graduates on the job market far exceeded supply.

 

Unemployment levels among university graduates have been at record highs in recent years. Although only 37% of the broader adult labor force has attended a tertiary institution, a Ministry of Education (MOE) survey of graduates from the class of 2005 found that about 12% were unemployed (either willingly or unwillingly) a year after graduation – a figure three times the overall unemployment rate at the time. Even more serious was a study conducted by the 104 Job Bank, which found that 64% of 2008 graduates had not found work during the first three months after graduation. That was a rise of 10 percentage points over the year before, although general demand in the labor force had risen by 2.2%. “University students are losing their appeal in the labor market,” said the 104 Job Bank in material prepared for TOPICS.

 

The problem seems to be a general oversupply of university and college graduates combined with an inferior quality of education, rather than a mismatch in supply and demand in specific fields. The 104 Job Bank says that in 2008 the 153,197 job-seekers with college degrees exceeded the demand of 112,919, though for Ph.D.-holders the situation was reversed, with around 90,468 vacancies and a supply of only 27,967.

 

MOE data shows that in recent years the most popular undergraduate majors have been business administration and engineering, with the overwhelming majority of doctorates earned in technology-related fields. While there is an oversupply of business and management graduates, the 104 Job Bank says, students from other disciplines are still in demand.

 

Multinationals, adds William Farrell, managing director for Boyden Global Executive Search, do not perceive that an oversupply or undersupply of graduates exists in any specific discipline, but generally regard Taiwanese university graduates as lacking such needed talents as independent decision-making skills and a capacity to think “outside the box.” Western multinationals have flatter hierarchies than local companies, Farrell says, and emphasize individual decision making. “It’s important to get facts right, but how much emphasis is there in universities on collaboration, coming up with new ideas, and having the ability to defend these ideas?” he asks.

 

A poll of industries conducted by the 104 Job Bank has found that 43% of companies complain that newcomers to the labor force are insufficiently trained. Ni notes that graduates from the12 top-tier universities are easily employed. “With many other universities, there is a question mark on whether industries can use them,” he says, adding it is difficult to bring all graduates up to one standard. At the same time, Ni cautions against the idea of viewing universities merely as training centers, stressing that education should be a far richer experience than that.

 

Unrealistic expectations

 

The high unemployment level for college grads can also be due to overly high expectations, says Wang Su-wang, an economist with the Chung-hua Institution for Economic Research. Although university graduates are no longer an elite minority in Taiwan, many of them still expect to immediately obtain an excellent position. But jobs at the top of the employment pyramid are few and masses of graduates are now competing for them. A survey conducted by the 104 Job Bank and Global Views Monthly found that almost half of employers say fresh graduates cannot withstand hardship and aim too high without understanding the need to work their way up. Another common complaint of employers was a lack of international perspective and weak foreign-language skills in fresh graduates, particularly those from private universities.

 

Research conducted by TIER shows that for specialized technology fields, demand is likely to drop off in future for those with bachelor’s degrees and continue to rise for those with post-graduate training. But many, such as Andrew H. J. Wang, vice president of Academia Sinica, complain that Taiwan is not making optimum use of its human capital because the private sector does not put enough effort into serious research. “Many highly educated students go to the IT industry and do assembly-line jobs,” he says. “It’s not cost-effective. There are many high-level people with no place to go.”

 

A variety of solutions to Taiwan’s educational ills have been proposed. Some emphasize the need for various MOE regulations to be liberalized or overhauled. Wong Chi-huey criticizes the prohibition on teachers at public institutions, as civil servants, from taking second job, and says Academia Sinica is seeking to have this changed. TIER’s Kao concurs, noting that students would benefit if teachers have a chance to gain more real-world experience. “In a knowledge-driven economy, such as the U.S., they encourage people with a lot of knowledge to use it as they want,” says Kao. “We shouldn’t have to worry about pitiful regulations limiting double incomes.” Kao also objects that MOE regulations hinder universities from developing their own courses. “Industries are innovating at an unimaginable speed,” he says. “But if you have so many regulations, the universities can’t be flexible.” As an example, Kao cites the large yacht-building business in Taiwan. Companies in the industry complain that they cannot find graduates with the proper training to work in this field, but Kao’s research into the problem has found that onerous MOE regulations have made it too troublesome for universities to set up suitable courses. Lee of Chinese Culture University adds that the enormous task of overseeing a multitude of universities and colleges is given over to a small number of career MOE officials without direct university experience.

 

Raising tuition fees would help the universities meet the financial challenges, but would be difficult to accomplish. Even for private universities, Lee says, tuition levels are considered a public matter and constitute a political hot potato. Whenever the issue arises, masses of parents put pressure on lawmakers, who then pressure the MOE to keep the fees low. As private university students frequently come from poor and rural backgrounds, he says, no education minister dares to tackle this problem.

 

Taiwanese universities would also benefit from U.S.-style endowments and donations, but that is contrary to local tradition. “Taiwanese would rather give money to temples,” says Ni. Private universities are often established with donations from individuals or individual families that go towards procuring the initial land and equipment. The schools receive little money after this, however. At Academia Sinica, Wong is trying to encourage private donations for endowed professorships or endowed chairs, as in the United States. Taiwanese “donors don’t invest in people, they invest in buildings,” he says. “But human capital is more important.”

 

Other suggestions for improving the educational system stress the creation of greater collaboration between the universities and industry. Lin notes that in the West, companies often donate money to universities, or sponsor a fellowship or particular program, to encourage the cultivation of the kind of people they need. The MOE’s Ni says this has begun to occur in Taiwan, though on a small scale. For instance, Acer has contributed facilities to NTU, whose students in turn share research with the computer giant, and the Yunlin University of Technology is working with small and medium-sized local enterprises to improve quality control processes. An example in the fisheries industry is the development of new equipment to improve the water quality and thereby reduce the mortality rate of the fish. The government would like to see more cooperation of this kind, he says. Experts also suggested that internship programs should be more prevalent. Instead of just complaining about the quality of college graduates, employers are urged to contact university administrations or individual professors to explain what they need and jointly devise meaningful programs. But there is also recognition that Taiwan industry’s fragmentation into numerous SMEs makes this harder to achieve than in countries like Korea with a concentration of large corporations.


 
Political influence

 

Reducing the number of universities may ultimately be necessary, but that is another politically sensitive topic. Part of the difficulty is that each university has built up some political capital in the local area where it is located. The legislators from those districts “exert a lot of influence behind the scenes” on their behalf, says Andrew Wang.

 

Taiwan’s rapidly declining birth rate is creating its own form of pressure on the universities, however. Population statistics from the Ministry of Interior show that the number of students is likely to dwindle. In 1990, Taiwan’s population was around 20.4 million, with 5.5 million people aged 14 or below; by 2008 the population was 23 million, with only 3.9 million under 14. “In future, we will see either the disappearance or merging of universities, and the admission of more foreign students,” says Wong Chi-huey.

 

It is generally recognized that to be competitive, Taiwan’s educational institutions need to internationalize. Already a variety of international courses are available in English (see sidebar) and scholarships are being offered to foreign students. China and India could be large prospective markets for student recruitment, and therefore sources of funds to provide some financial relief. The Legislative Yuan in its spring session is preparing to consider a law permitting Chinese students to study in Taiwan (Lin notes that this is one of the very few areas where the opposition DPP disagrees with the Kuomintang government on higher-education reform policies).

 

Taiwanese students, especially those from more well-to-do families, are also increasingly going overseas to study. More than 33,000 overseas student visas were applied for in 2007, with the United States and United Kingdom as the leading destinations.

 

The MOE’s main current concern is ensuring that Taiwan’s brightest students are internationally competitive and that at least one of the nation’s universities is ranked within the world’s top 100 within the next decade or so. To achieve this goal, it started a program in 2004 to award funds of NT$50 billion (US$1.47 billion) over five years to Taiwan’s 12 top universities. So far, says Ni, NTU has received the lion’s share, an average of NT$3.5 billion (US$103 million) annually, followed by National Cheng Kung University with NT$1.7 billion. The program looks set to continue after 2009. The MOE hopes that through this program, the spending per student on Taiwan’s best-performing young scholars will once again reach NT$200,000 (US$5,880). Unfortunately, Ni says, “we can’t do this for all the students – we don’t have the money.” Other universities, Ni adds, can benefit from the “Excellence in Education” plan, which started in 2005 and has an annual budget of NT$5 billion (US$147 million). The program focuses on nurturing practical teaching skills and improving teacher quality so that students are better educated and also more employable. To get grants from this budget, individual universities must compete against one another in submitting detailed proposals.

 

In addition, efforts are under way to draw a clear distinction between polytechnics and universities. Ni says the MOE is seeking to create a new system in which promotions for polytechnic professors are based on the publication of technical reports rather than academic papers. Lin is among those supporting the elimination of Ph.D. programs at the polytechnics.

 

While pointing to improvements that need to be made, most of the experts interviewed for this article also noted the many assets that Taiwan possesses with regard to higher education, including its free, open and democratic system, reasonably well-developed university infrastructure, and lower expenses than Western institutions. Perhaps most fundamentally, Taiwan society still has an abiding commitment to education. “The reason why we are discussing these shortcomings is so we can be among the best in the world,” says the Academia Sinica’s Wang. “It’s pretty good to be ranked 13th, but we want to be in the top ten.”

 

 

Liberalizing Entry Barriers for Foreign Schools

 

Is encouraging more foreign competitors to enter the market a good way to spur domestic universities to improve? Many Asian nations seem to think so, but Taiwan still adopts a more protectionist stance.

 

Robert Lin, chairman of AmCham’s Education and Training Committee, notes that while Hong Kong and Singapore enthusiastically welcome foreign universities to set up various kinds of campuses in their territory, restrictive regulations in Taiwan in effect prevent foreign higher-educational institutions from establishing branches or satellite campuses here. “Many U.S colleges would like to come here, but due to high entry barriers for setting up satellite campuses, those institutions hesitate to do so,” says Lin, who is also the director of the Taiwan representative office for Baruch College of the City University of New York (CUNY).

 

The main barrier is the stipulation that the foreign university establish a full-scale campus in Taiwan, meeting steep requirements regarding the amount of land, number of faculty, breadth of the curriculum, etc. There have been no takers. Instead, some foreign universities operate more limited programs here by teaming up with a local university, as Baruch as done with Minchuan University for an international executive program that offers a Master of Science degree from CUNY in such fields as finance, HR management, marketing, or information systems management.

 

In addition, the government sets limits on the recognition of foreign degrees. Students attending joint-degree programs taking place in Taiwan have problems receiving credits that are not earned physically at the foreign institution’s main campus. Online course credits are not recognized, and there are restrictions on obtaining credits for short-term courses offered by visiting professors from a foreign school, even if the same course is offered in the school’s home country.

 

“My personal experience tells me that a free and open market brings more benefit than a highly regulated market,” says Lin. “The students should have more choices.” An executive Master’s program offered in Taiwan by a foreign institution such as Baruch College, he says, has a significant edge over its local equivalent, even if the latter is taught in English. Students would be able to gain more practical experience with business in another culture, such as the United States, an asset in a globalized economy.

 

“Students would have much more real-time cases and knowledge from New York, which is the biggest financial center in the world,” Lin notes. “Recently, the authorities have considered that with such a weak economy, this is not a good time to liberalize the restrictions on foreign universities. But my view is that this would be the appropriate time to start the planning.”

 

— By Jane Rickards

 

 

Internationalizing Taiwan’s Campuses

 

At first, Taiwan was a shock for Gopi Kuppuraj. The 31-year-old bespectacled student from Coimbatore, a city in southern India, describes how he left the subcontinent for Taipei over four years ago to take up a doctoral scholarship in chemical biology and molecular biophysics. Aimed at fostering international talent, the program at Academia Sinica is given entirely in English.

 

“On my first day, people were talking in a language I could not decode,” he recalls. “I was really intimidated. I thought: I am spending five years here? Maybe I should book my first flight back home.”

 

Later, he says, he found that Taiwanese people are friendly and that studying at Academia Sinica, along with affiliated National Tsing Hua University, was of utmost benefit to his research, which involves using computers to model the structure of proteins. “The facilities here are top-notch,” he says.

 

In India, Kuppuraj says, unless a student is at one of a handful of elite universities, applying to use a university computer is generally a frustrating and time-consuming exercise in red tape. Frequent power shortages are another problem. “If I want to do something here, I can do it straight away in my lab,” he says. “You would wait months in India.”

 

Kuppuraj’s program is part of a push to internationalize local universities by having them offer courses in English to both Taiwanese and foreign students. Many such courses are supported by government scholarship programs for nurturing foreign talent. In Academia Sinica’s Taiwan International Graduate Program, which began in 2002, the overwhelming majority of the 100 or so foreign scholarship-holders are Indians, like Kuppuraj. They often are attracted to the program, which offers interdisciplinary Ph.D.s from Taiwan’s top research universities, by the infrastructure available at Taiwanese institutions.

 

International MBA programs offered by elite domestic universities such as National Chengchi University and National Taiwan University (NTU) are also changing the face of Taiwanese higher education. Timothy Chou, the Global MBA (GMBA) director at NTU, says his program has connections with major schools all over the world. As an example, he cites the program’s partnership with the prestigious Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. The Wharton MBA program pairs teams of Wharton students and faculty with counterparts from a foreign country, such as those from NTU’s GMBA program, to collectively work on a consulting project. Teams from the two schools have collaborated to develop innovative strategies to help Taiwanese clients, mainly IT companies, enter or solidify their presence in the U.S. market. “Wharton has a lot of experience,” Chou says. “They’ve been doing this program for 30 years. The students get really excited by this opportunity.”

 

Chou says that all the Taiwanese faculty members in the program have been educated overseas, most of them in the United States. Foreign professors, often with extensive high-level practical business management experience, are also invited to teach in the program, which emphasizes entrepreneurship and innovation in the global market. The two-year program has a yearly intake of up to 60 students, around one-third foreign, one-third overseas Taiwanese, and one-third local Taiwanese. The majority have backgrounds in the IT industry.

 

Foreign students hail mainly from the United States and Canada, and tend to be attracted by the Mandarin-speaking environment (the program offers Chinese-language classes), the proximity to China, and Taiwan’s prominence in the IT field. Another factor is what Chou calls the “ridiculously low” tuition fees of around US$2,000 per semester. Foreigners generally hear about the program through word of mouth, he says, and it often attracts English teachers hoping to make a transition into the business world. The program started as a certificate program five years ago as part of a push to internationalize the NTU College of Management. It was upgraded to a GMBA program three years ago.

 

Chou says the presence of foreign teachers and classmates naturally forces local students to speak English. “It has really changed the atmosphere,” he says.

 

— By Jane Rickards

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