Does Taiwan’s education systems offer value for money?

It is the 5th most expensive on earth, but does Taiwanese education really offer value for money?

Math class at Chu Jen Junior High School in 2007. (By Wikimedia Commons)

As the father of a toddler, my wife and I have been thinking a lot about the pros and cons of the Taiwanese education system of late as we try to decide whether to school our daughter here or back in the UK. We have spoken to teachers, parents, and students to learn their views.

So, the news that Taiwanese parents spend the 5th highest amount in the world on educating their children, is something that got me thinking about whether, given the huge outlay required, the Taiwanese education system really offers value for money.

In the UK, Taiwan enjoys a strong reputation for education, along with many other East Asian nations. Indeed, with the OECD ranking Taiwan as the joint-fourth best place in the world to get an education, many of our friends in the UK have assumed that we will want to educate here.

Andreas Schleicher, the OECD Education Director claims that their rankings allow countries “to compare themselves against the world's education leaders, to discover their relative strengths and weaknesses, and to see what the long-term economic gains from improved quality in schooling could be for them."

The problem with the OECD rankings is that they are based solely on test scores and herein lies one of the big issues with schooling in Taiwan. The focus on results is absolute and prioritized over every other aspect of the curriculum.

Children in Taiwan are conditioned even from pre-school that maximum scores in tests are expected. And not just by teachers, but by parents too.

Let me give as an example, my nephew, who in his first year at elementary school here was incentivized by his teacher promising two sweets to every student who scored 100% in their test. There would be one sweet for anyone scoring over 95%, but nothing for anyone scoring less.

To have such pressure heaped on you at the age of 6 is, in my view, potentially risking long-term damage to a child’s educational confidence and future prospects. Indeed, it is questionable whether doing tests at all at that age has any benefit. In the UK, it is certainly not the norm. But here in Taiwan, it is a weekly occurrence.

In the UK, students are encouraged to learn through playing, through doing, and through thinking. Not just through reading and listening. It requires effort and creativity from teachers, but this seems to be sadly lacking in Taiwan. Too many teachers here are elderly, set-in-their-ways, and fundamentally opposed to change.

And if the student does not understand something being taught, the attitude seems to always be that is student’s problem rather than a failing on the teachers part. To my mind, if a teacher fails to get a student to understand something, they are failing in their role as teacher.


Taiwanese students taking a test in 2006. (Wikimedia Commons)

The other problem with the focus on testing is the prioritization it gives to retaining information, or "learning by rote" as it is often described, over developing a child’s ability to analyze information and think for themselves.

The classic subject for discussion on this issue is history. Should history be about memorizing dates and facts, or should it be about interpreting history and applying it to the modern day? I would argue that whilst some information retention is important, the application of history is a far more worthwhile quality for a child to leave school with.

Which moves us onto another question which the OECD rankings fail to address. How well equipped are Taiwanese students for the workplace once they leave school?

In the professional world, workers are expected to be able to work on their own, think for themselves, and problem-solve effectively. It is arguable that the Taiwanese education system produces students with none of these qualities. They know things, but they do not know how to use that knowledge effectively. It could be argued that this is a big reason why entry-level salaries in Taiwan are so low

But thinking for yourself is something which is not encouraged throughout Taiwanese society. When young people protested against the KMT-Government’s proposed closer ties to China, in what has been termed the Sunflower Movement, the response of many legislators, parents, and Taiwanese people in general, was that these young people know nothing and should just go home.

The same was true when they protested the KMT’s ludicrous changes to the history curriculum. This is something which needs to change throughout Taiwanese society, not least within the business sector.

After Taiwan’s economic miracle of the late 20th century, the subsequent slow-down is in no small part down to the business leaders holding onto their companies rather than handing them down to the next generation. This lack of trust and respect in younger people has stymied innovation and negatively impacted the whole of Taiwanese society.

This issue cannot be changed overnight, but the place to begin is in education, where urgent modernization is needed. The curriculum needs to be shifted onto a more progressive footing which gives children the skills they need to succeed in the workplace rather than simply pass exams.

The teaching profession needs to be given a wake-up call, with greater scrutiny given to methods and older teachers forced to either change their methods or retire and make way for the next generation. And perhaps most importantly education needs to be made fun again. Children should not think of school as hard and boring work. It should be exciting, stimulating, and adventurous.

There are other issues which need addressing too, such as long hours and unregulated cram schools. But in addressing these fundamentals, the Taiwanese Government could go a long way to both improving the lot of Taiwan’s school-leavers and jump-starting the Taiwanese economy once more.

Time is of the essence. Every year things remain the same, another generation of children are left behind. Proud of their high test scores, but struggling once they graduate. 

So, does the Taiwanese education offer value for money. At the moment, I would argue, definitely not. And without some wholesale changes, it looks likely that our daughter will be educated in the "imperfect" UK system rather than the "fundamentally flawed" Taiwanese one.