Taiwan needs a Higher Education Revolution

Around 600 international students have received scholarships to study in Taiwan this year, but Higher Education has the potential to offer Taiwan more if the authorities dare to think big

National Taiwan University. (Flickr user MinAn)

At the start of this week, the 2017 Taiwan Scholarship and Huayu Enrichment Scholarship Program was launched in Taipei. This laudable scheme is designed to encourage students from around the world to choose to study at university level or learn Mandarin in Taiwan by offering a variety of scholarships.

The program is particularly targeted at Taiwan’s Diplomatic allies and has enjoyed some success. This year saw some 1,500 applications being received from more than 80 countries, around 600 of which were accepted. Meanwhile, in the 13 years since it was established, it has provided scholarships to more than 100,000 students from over 100 countries around the world.

The many benefits of international students

The positive long-term impact of this program on the students who participate is difficult to underestimate for Taiwan. Students who study in Taiwan will return to their home countries with (hopefully) a hugely positive view of Taiwan to share. They will have developed language skills and contacts which will enable them to do business with Taiwan in their future careers. Some may even choose to remain in Taiwan and directly contribute to the economy and to Taiwanese society.

The Higher Education sector has the potential to change the way Taiwan is viewed by the rest of the world, both now and for future generations. It is a great way to get the message out there that Taiwan is a thriving and economically diverse democracy that is open and ready for business.

The number of overseas students studying in Taiwan has risen consistently in recent years. But of the 116,416 who were here in 2016, the majority were here on short-term courses or to study Mandarin and around a third came from China. The focus needs to shift from Chinese students, who let’s not forget will only ever be allowed to study here if the Communist Party permits them to.

Rather Taiwan should be looking to sell its Higher Education to those regional countries being targeted by the new ‘Southbound’ economic policy as well as other nations around which Taiwan does the most business with.

So, the only real question is why Taiwan is not investing more to build on the benefits that the 2017 Taiwan Scholarship and Huayu Enrichment Scholarship Program has unlocked.

Local student and brain-drain

Taiwan’s higher education system at the moment can be described as, at best, adequate. There is currently just one Taiwanese university ranked inside the global top 100 higher education institutes. That is the National Taiwan University, which is in 86th place.

Looking lower down, there are a mere five more inside the top 500. (National Chiao Tung University – 253; National Cheng Kung University – 264; National Tsing Hua University Taiwan – 294; National Central University – 432; and National Sun Yat-Sen University – 474).

For a country with a population of 23 million people, which has around 250,000 High School graduates each year, this is not good enough. Many of the best Taiwanese students will choose to study abroad, with the USA, the UK, and Australia the most popular destinations.

While there are clear benefits to having a proportion of Taiwanese students travelling abroad to experience different cultures and ways of doing things, the country only really benefits if they return to Taiwan afterwards. Many, however, do not. Surely something is wrong when more of these talented students don’t want to study at home and a good proportion don’t even want to come back here to work afterwards?

The problem of ‘brain-drain’ has been widely discussed in Taiwan recently, with a report earlier in the year from the National Development Council (NDC) showing that the number of Taiwanese people working overseas has more than doubled in the past decade. Even more tellingly, a survey by the Science & Technology Policy Research and Information Center (STPI) found that a third of Taiwanese PhD students wanted to work overseas. 

There are various different reasons for this, but a higher education revolution in Taiwan could help to buck the trend and see Taiwan starting to import the best students and academics from other countries rather than exporting its own. But to be successful it needs to be bold and radical.

A Higher Education revolution in Taiwan

I would like to see Taiwanese Universities beginning to specialise in the sectors where Taiwan is strongest. Greater investment in areas like Computer Science, Engineering, and environmental sciences could see Taiwanese universities become a desirable place for international students and academics to work, especially given the links that could be fostered with successful businesses in the same sectors. This could provide students with valuable real-life experience as well as offer the companies an opportunity to hire the best young talent.

Globally, there is a trend to open more and more universities, with quantity being placed before quality. Taiwan has been no exception and it would be beneficial for Taiwan to seek to merge some universities to save on operational costs and allow a great focus on quality academic output. I would like to see a network of no more than a dozen public Universities being focused on across Taiwan. With the exceptions of Taipei and perhaps Taichung and Kaohsiung, there is no reason for any other Taiwan city to have more than one higher education institution.

Many students from non-Chinese speaking countries might be put off the idea of studying in Taiwan because of the language barrier. Given that most Taiwanese students have a decent grasp of English, it would make sense for more courses to be offered in that language. For others, crash courses in Mandarin would be a big attraction and there is no reason why these couldn’t run alongside regular study, with dual qualifications in Mandarin and another subject another intriguing idea.

There are plenty more innovative approaches that could be considered, but any changes are likely to have to be driven from the top. This means that policymakers have to be prepared to start thinking outside the box, be bold and adventurous in their ideas, and be willing to put their money where their mouth is.

By pushing Taiwanese institutions higher up the world rankings and making it more attractive for international students and the best local students, to study here, Taiwan’s economy could receive a big boost. And the soft-diplomatic benefits that would ensue would be felt in time as well. It’s a win-win situation. All it needs is a little courage, creativity, and, of course, cash.