Cablegate: Taiwan's Higher Education--Initiatives to Improve

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.




E.O. 12958: N/A
SUBJECT: Taiwan's Higher Education--Initiatives to Improve
Quality and Internationalization

REF: A) TAIPEI 002252
B) TAIPEI 02747

1. (SBU) SUMMARY: Taiwan's higher education system has grown
rapidly in the past ten years, leaving it over-expanded and
under-funded. Educators and employers have recognized the
need for higher education to improve in quality and become
more internationalized if Taiwan is to develop a more
sophisticated research and development capability. In
response, the Ministry of Education and other government
agencies have announced a number of policy initiatives,
including scholarship programs for more Taiwan students to
earn graduate degrees overseas and for foreign students to
pursue degrees in Taiwan. Cooperation between institutions
and the private sector is also improving. The PRC is
increasingly a competitor for top local and foreign
students, but Taiwan has not yet made a significant effort
to position itself as a regional leader in education for the
Asia-Pacific region. End summary.

Issues After a Decade of Reform
2. (U) Despite more than a decade of reforms, Taiwan's
education system continues to be criticized for its
inability to address the needs of a rapidly changing society
and economy. There are complaints that reforms have been
inconsistent and politically driven, varying too much with
the frequent changes in Ministry of Education leadership.
This report analyzes current issues with the education
system, including expansion of higher education, quality of
graduates, funding, the need for internationalization, and
cross-straits competition. Ref B addressed Minister of
Education Tu's particular role in the reforms; the current
shortages of skilled high-tech workers will be discussed

3. (U) During Taiwan's democratization in the early 1990s,
academics and politicians began to question the education
system's emphasis on exams and rote learning, and the lack
of widespread access to higher education. These concerns
led to a program of reform, intended to open higher
education to a larger percentage of society and to assist
Taiwan's transition from a manufacturing to a knowledge-
based economy. Curricula at all levels were also changed
to reflect greater emphasis on Taiwan history and culture,
and schools were permitted to choose which textbooks they
would use. In addition, the university entrance exam system
was replaced in 2002 with a multiple-channel admissions
system that provides some flexibility in university

Oversupply Leads to Lower Quality
4. (U) One reform that had a particularly powerful and long-
lasting impact on Taiwan's higher education was the
relaxation of legal requirements for opening universities.
The primary issue facing Taiwan's education system is an
excess of supply in higher education, caused by a flood of
new institutions opening their doors in the 1990s and early
2000s, and a sharp increase in the number of post-secondary
students that resulted from these relaxed requirements. The
table below shows the increase in institutions and students
over the past seven years:

1997-1998 2004-2005

Number of junior colleges,
four-year colleges,
and universities 139 159

Total students in junior colleges,
four-year colleges,
and universities 856,000 1.28m

Number of four-year colleges
and universities 78 139

Total students in four-year
colleges and universities 422,321 1.05m

The most dramatic increases have been in the number of four-
year colleges and universities and in the number of students
attending them, which more than doubled. This change is the
result of many junior colleges upgrading to colleges and
universities without sufficiently improving their faculty or
curricula. The astonishing increase in number of schools
and number of students has affected the quality of teaching
and research, as well as the quality of graduates entering
the workforce.

5. (U) While this increase currently provides a growing pool
of university graduates for the labor market, the situation
is projected to change in coming years. The population of
Taiwan is aging along with that of the rest of East Asia.
Taiwan's total fertility rate (average number of births per
woman) is currently 1.2, among the lowest in the world, and
its population is projected to drop by three percent over
the next fifty years. The Council of Economic Planning and
Development has projected that if Taiwan's colleges and
universities maintain their current number of places, they
will experience a shortfall of more than 60,000 students per
year when children born today are ready for college. This
phenomenon has already started to appear. Some institutions
are already having trouble recruiting enough students to
fill their classes. The MOE recognizes the need to stop
growth, and has moved from a policy permitting expansion to
one encouraging consolidation of schools by the creation of
joint campuses and programs. Despite this policy, new
schools continue to be proposed. The MOE has recently
received more than twenty applications for new private
colleges or universities, but has not approved any.

6. (SBU) As a result of the rapid expansion of higher
education, there has been a perceived decline in the quality
of education and of graduates entering the work force. The
loosening of restrictions on the establishment of
universities and colleges meant that many private
institutions opened quickly and sought to increase revenues
by increasing enrollment. According to former Ministers of
Education Dr. Jong-Tsun Huang and Dr. Ovid Tzeng, and Dr. Wu
Jing-jyi, executive director of the Foundation for Scholarly
Exchange (Taiwan's Fulbright foundation), the quality of
teaching at these institutions has declined. Faculty face
heavier course loads and more administrative work, leaving
less time for research and publications. There are not
enough highly qualified professors to meet demand, and it is
also difficult to attract professors from overseas due to
the lower salaries offered in Taiwan. As a result,
universities resort to using less qualified teachers and
more adjunct professors.

Elite Students Under-Performing
7. (SBU) Even students at elite universities are perceived
as not performing up to their potential. Educators have
argued that the recent decline in the number of students
from Taiwan studying abroad has had a negative effect on
Taiwan's competitiveness. The expansion of educational
opportunities in Taiwan has made it less of an imperative
for elite students to go overseas for undergraduate or
graduate degrees. They may find it easier to stay in
Taiwan, and more useful to make local connections for job-
hunting after graduation. Dr. Tzeng, now vice-president of
Academia Sinica, and Dr. Wu both argue that the quality of
students in Taiwan has suffered from the decreased emphasis
on study abroad, and from the lack of competition to get
into elite overseas universities.

8. (U) Taiwan employers have also noted a decline in quality
as they begin to employ new graduates. Many refer to
Taiwan's youth born in the 1980s as the "strawberry
generation" because of their fragility and inability to
withstand hardship. Compared to previous generations, these
workers are perceived as less dedicated and less willing to
make sacrifices for their work. A recent survey of Taiwan
companies conducted by the Council of Labor Affairs found
that 54% of the companies polled were concerned about the
quality and loyalty of recent university graduates as
employees. A poll by a large Taipei employment agency found
that about half of employers were satisfied with recent
graduates, and that on average, a worker from this
generation had held three jobs in three years in the job

Financial Resources Under Strain
9. (U) With the expansion of higher education came a
significant increase in expenditures. Public and private
expenditures on higher education jumped from US$3.82 billion
in 2000 to US$6.08 billion in 2002. However, spending on
higher education is still relatively low in Taiwan, and the
requirement that funding be split equally on a per capita
basis among all of Taiwan's universities has meant that its
most prestigious universities are dramatically under-funded
compared with similar institutions overseas. At the
flagship National Taiwan University, per capita spending is
less than one tenth that at Tokyo University, and one
seventh that of Hong Kong University. To remedy this
situation, the Ministry of Education has proposed a change
in the funding structure, designating nine universities as
elite research institutions that would share an additional
US$300 million per year in funding to stimulate high-quality
teaching and research. The funding is currently awaiting
approval by the Legislative Yuan. The MOE is also
considering proposals to increase tuition, which has been
held at low levels: for undergraduate degrees, average
tuition at public universities is around US$800 per
semester, and about US$1450 per semester at private schools.

Internationalization a Growing Concern
10. (U) Employers in Taiwan frequently note the difficulty
of hiring local staff with the necessary English language
skills and perspective to work in an international
environment. Educators have ascribed this erosion of
language skills and international experience to the decline
in students going abroad, particularly in the high-tech
sector, where graduates of elite schools are in high demand.
These workers find it easier to pursue a masters degree at a
Taiwan university while continuing to work, rather than take
the time and effort to go overseas to study. Many in the
high-tech and education sectors argue that this trend will
be detrimental to future innovation in Taiwan's high-tech
industries, because they will not be able to benefit from
the pool of internationally trained and well-connected
scientists and businesspeople that drove the development of
the high-tech sector in the 1980s.

11. (U) In response to these concerns, the MOE has set a
goal of internationalizing the education system, and has
started several initiatives to promote both the
international quality of study in Taiwan and study abroad.
First, the MOE has initiated a program modeled on the JET
program in Japan, to improve the teaching of English at
primary and secondary levels by hiring native-speaker
teachers. Second, it has encouraged universities to create
more degree programs taught in English, both to improve
Taiwanese students' English abilities and to attract more
international students. These programs include an
international MBA program for both international and local
students at National Chengchi University, and Ph.D. programs
in the sciences for international students at Academia

12. (SBU) In 2003, the MOE established the Taiwan
Scholarship Program to encourage foreign students to come to
Taiwan for degree programs. The program grants up to US$
1000 per month for students in undergraduate and graduate
programs: in its first year it funded more than 500
students, and MOE estimates that it will fund almost 1,200
in 2008. Most of the students in the first two years have
been from the US, Japan, and South Korea. The MOE also has
a separate language scholarship program. Between the two
programs, the MOE's goal is to increase the number of
foreign students in Taiwan tenfold within ten years.
Throughout Asia, there is a trend toward regionalization of
education. Students are increasingly going to the PRC to
study rather than the US, while Singapore and Hong Kong try
to attract students from China, Southeast Asia, and India.
According to Rebecca Lan of the Taiwan Scholarship Program,
the MOE's primary focus is still on North America, Japan,
and Europe. However, the Overseas Chinese Affairs
Commission offers scholarships for overseas Chinese from
Southeast Asia to attend schools in Taiwan.

13. (U) Despite these programs, lack of recognition of
Taiwan's universities in the international academic
community continues to be a concern. Educators ascribe this
problem to insufficient participation by Taiwan academics in
international conferences, and the small number of English-
language scholarly publications from Taiwan. To increase
international standing, the MOE has set two targets: for one
of Taiwan's universities to be ranked as number one in Asia
in a particular field by 2008, and for one to rank in the
top 100 internationally by 2013.

14. (U) While Taiwan has traditionally been a major source
of foreign students for the US and other English-speaking
countries, educators advocating for greater
internationalization have argued that Taiwan students should
go overseas for graduate study in even larger numbers. In
2004 the MOE started a loan program to fund students in
overseas graduate programs. This year the MOE established
the Elite Study Abroad project, which will be co-funded by
CEPD and the National Science Council. The Elite Study
Abroad program will fund up to 1000 students enrolled in
specialized overseas graduate programs over the next four
years. AIT has also seen increased attention to and funding
of the Fulbright program by Taiwan authorities.

15. (SBU) Dr. Tzeng of Academia Sinica has said that the
MOE is moving in the right direction towards
internationalization, but that it is still moving slowly,
and could increase its efforts. He recommends that the MOE
more actively promote Ph.D students going abroad for at
least part of their study, and to make sure they attend
elite schools. The American Chamber of Commerce has also
recommended that Taiwan encourage overseas study by allowing
male students to defer compulsory military service until
after the completion of foreign degrees. Additionally, the
MOE currently refuses to recognize degrees earned in foreign
universities if more than one-third of the degree was earned
online or in Taiwan. This restriction does not reflect the
current trend toward distance learning, and some educators
have argued that it should be abolished.

Insufficient Cooperation with Private Sector
16. (U) Both employers and educators have noted that
cooperation between industry and universities to train and
recruit highly skilled workers for the high-tech industries
has been insufficient to date. Universities have not taken
full advantage of opportunities to work with the private
sector to establish faculty chairs, curricula, scholarships,
and internships. This lack of cooperation has several
causes. University regulations make it difficult to hire
adjunct professors from industry. The academic system does
not reward professors' collaboration with industry unless
they produce published results. Furthermore, restrictive
labor regulations make summer internships fairly uncommon in

17. (U) Despite these obstacles, there is some cooperation
taking place. A number of high-tech companies have recently
established scholarship programs in the top universities,
funding graduate students in exchange for an agreement to
work for the company after graduation. Additionally, the
MOE recently announced an initiative to increase its funding
of technology colleges working with the private sector from
NT$300 million to NT$5 billion per year by 2009.

PRC a Growing Competitor in Education
18. (U) Competition with PRC institutions is a growing
concern for Taiwan educators. The quality of Mainland
China's education system, especially at elite schools, is
reported to have improved significantly in recent years. At
the same time, however, the system has increased
dramatically in size. Between 2001 and 2004 the number of
university students more than doubled, from 1.1 million to
2.8 million. The PRC has increased spending on higher
education, and universities have also benefited from
investment by the IT sector and merger of institutions to
conserve resources.

19. (U) While some of Taiwan's most promising talent
continue to be attracted by work opportunities in China,
they also find it an increasingly desirable place to study.
Mainland universities come to Taiwan to recruit students,
and last month, the PRC announced that it will reduce
tuition for Taiwan students to the same level as mainland
students, making it even more affordable for them to get
their degrees across the Strait. However, Taiwan's MOE has
indicated that it does not plan to recognize degrees granted
by Mainland schools. A number of Taiwan universities have
established executive MBA programs on the Mainland for
Taiwan businesspeople living there, but the MOE also refuses
to recognize these degrees. The number of foreign students
studying in the PRC has also increased sharply in recent
years, and it now hosts ten times as many foreign students
as Taiwan.

20. (SBU) Despite the increasing reputation of education on
the mainland, academics in Taiwan such as Dr. Tzeng and Dr.
Wu find that the quality of Mainland doctoral programs is
still fairly low compared with Taiwan. Dr. Tzeng pointed
out that Taiwan's universities greatly benefited from
academics trained overseas who returned to Taiwan in the
1980s and 90s. The PRC is only now beginning to develop a
similar pool of internationally connected scholars, and has
only encouraged them to return on a very small scale. It
will take some time for the PRC education system to benefit
from their expertise.

21. (SBU) The primary issue in Taiwan's education system is
now quality rather than quantity. Recognizing that a highly
educated population is essentially Taiwan's only natural
resource, Taiwan's public and academics alike understandably
hold extremely high expectations for reform. The rapid
growth of higher education in the past ten years has left
the system overextended, insufficiently funded and
inadequately staffed. To improve the situation, the MOE and
institutions must focus on slowing growth while improving
the quality of teaching. The MOE should continue to
encourage merging of institutions to address the oversupply
of places, and focus resources on the selected research
universities. Its policies of strengthening science and
technology in the top universities and expanding links
between academia and industry are excellent long-term
strategies and should be continued, especially by removing
barriers to internship programs and faculty appointments.
The MOE should also continue to expand its programs to send
students overseas for graduate study, and to encourage them
to return to work in Taiwan. These programs will build the
highly skilled workforce that Taiwan's high-tech sector
needs to continue to grow. While it is perhaps inevitable
that China will attract both local and foreign students away
from Taiwan, Taiwan is in a good position to promote itself
as a relatively high-quality, low-cost place for students
from the Asia-Pacific region to study.

© Scoop Media

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