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Taiwanese Higher Education in Crisis

My University Has Disappeared!

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My University Has Disappeared!

Source:Domingo Chung

In January 2010, the boards of Chia Nan University of Pharmacy & Science and Leader University signed an agreement to merge, the first merger of private universities in Taiwan since the Private School Law was revised last June, providing a legal foundation for such mergers. According to one education professional, Leader University will change its name and eventually vanish into history.

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My University Has Disappeared!

By Yi-Shan Chen
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 444 )

"The minister even asked me if we wanted to take another nearby university under our control," says Chia Nan University president Wang Chao-hsiung, recalling a conversation he had with Minister of Education Wu Ching-ji. Located in the Tainan Science Park, just across the street from Leader University, which has a student body of 3,860, is Hsing Kuo University of Management, which is down to 1,715 students.

Unwanted Universities, Unwanted Students

Over a period of several years, universities and university students have gradually become hot potatoes. Newly graduated university students cannot find a job, and even when private universities want to donate their institutions to the state, the state does not want them. At the beginning of this year, Leader University ignited a potential trend toward disappearing universities, a trend 1 million college and university students and their families must confront.

With universities fighting for their survival, and university graduates finding it increasingly difficult to land a job, many academics worry that the mantra "my university has disappeared" could evolve further into the more serious refrain "university education has disappeared."

Lin Wan-I, a professor in National Taiwan University's Department of Social Work who often participates in school evaluations, has seen some less prestigious universities turn themselves into "professional training institutes" and overemphasize the teaching of short-term skills to help students get jobs. 

Dung-sheng Chen, a distinguished professor in NTU's Department and Graduate Institute of Sociology, is even more worried about the 300 percent growth in the number of students who graduated with doctoral degrees over the past 10 years. He fears that a potential shortage of stable teaching positions will spawn a class of "vagabond professors."

As professors get laid off or replaced by other "vagabonds" with increasing frequency, leading to declining job security, teachers will lose their independence in the search for knowledge. "When universities play that game, they're finished," Chen says.

Taiwan currently has 33,700 doctoral candidates. Assuming it takes an average of six years for students to get a doctorate, Taiwan will produce an average of 5,625 new PhDs a year in the near future. Many face bleak career prospects if they want a university teaching job. There are now 50,000 full-time professors in the country, and if they retire after teaching for an average of 25 years, that will open up approximately 2,000 jobs per year. Even if none of Taiwan's universities fold, nearly two-thirds of all new PhDs will not be able to find work as university professors.

Over 10 years of flawed higher education policies have led to distortions in the accessibility and quality of the country's higher education system.

Five minutes after getting off the Madou exit on Taiwan's No. 1 North-South Freeway, one sees a sign pointing the way to the Madou campus of Aletheia University. After turning onto a tiny road that can barely accommodate a car in each direction, one has to drive for about 15 minutes before the campus appears, in the center of a big open field.

Three years ago, when the government evaluated Aletheia University's 34 departments and institutes, it approved 12, conditionally approved another 12, and did not pass 10. The situation improved dramatically after the university's current president Wu Ming-yuan arrived on the scene two years ago. In an evaluation conducted last year, 14 departments passed muster, and another eight were conditionally approved.

But the Madou campus continues to face a major quandary that grew worse in the 2009-2010 academic year. Total enrollment is only just over 1,900 students, the result of the declining number of university-age students in Taiwan and the Ministry of Education's tightening of the threshold students have to meet to gain admission to a university. Recruiting new students has been a nightmare, to the point where in one department with seven full-time professors, only one freshman registered for the program.

Despite's Aletheia University's difficult predicament in Madou, it is not in the worst shape of higher education institutions because of the success of its main campus in Danshui. Enrollment in the school's two branches, which totals more than 10,000 students, rose a combined 3.5 percent this year from a year earlier. Tunghai University president Haydn H.D. Chen, who has also been the chairman of the Association of Private Universities & Colleges since September 2009, says private universities need over 4,000 students to break even, a target 35 universities and colleges, or 21 percent of the total, failed to meet in the 2009-2010 academic year.

Investors in the private schools who cannot make money are not the only ones affected by this dispersion and disjointed allocation of resources. Students are even bigger victims. One professor of law in Tainan admitted to anxiety over whether his school would fold. Schools like that are plagued by high turnover rates, as the concerned professor can testify. His department has lost seven full-time professors in its seven years of existence, and no teacher has been in the department for more than three years.

In an environment of flawed resource distribution, schools must cut corners to survive, making it difficult to maintain pedagogical quality and posing a serious challenge to traditional teacher-student relationships. Another law department professor, who graduated from National Taiwan University, said he originally wanted to emulate a former teacher of his and fail about one-third of his students to force them to work hard. The school, however, blocked the initiative because of the Ministry of Education's quota system for total enrollment. If too many students are flunked, then a bigger share of the fixed student body will be repeat students, and unlike new students who pay full tuition, repeat students only pay a fee based on credit hours.

The Looming '2015 Armageddon'

This already distorted higher education environment is likely to grow worse in the foreseeable future, as the student population continues to dwindle. In the 2009-2010 academic year, Taiwan's universities had 69,000 unfilled openings for students, 16.2 percent of the total. University presidents, however, are focused on what is being referred to as the "2015 Armageddon." In 2015, Taiwan will have 55,000 fewer university students, a number that equates to about one-third of all departments being forced to shut down.

"The future agenda for universities will be re-engineering themselves or going out of business. It won't be a question of public vs. private schools or performance. The problem is that supply and demand are fundamentally out of whack," stresses Tunghai University's Chen.

From the perspective of resource allocation, the government should require public and private schools with student body sizes that are not economically viable to merge, a move that would both improve the quality of education and the country's finances.

Of Taiwan's higher education institutions that fell short of the 4,000-student threshold in the 2009-2010 year, 15 are public schools.

"The problem is that the universities' executive committees never approve the idea," says Deputy Minister of Education Lin Tsong-ming. Since universities have become self-administrating, the highest policy-making body at a school is its executive committee. The Education Ministry cannot force schools to accept its direction.

As for private universities merging, the Private School Law authorizes the boards of two schools to merge of their own accord, but the Education Ministry is not legally empowered to force the issue. Lin says that in the past, the ministry took control of six problematic universities and colleges. But once the schools' operations were restored to normal, many of the school's board members wanted to take their institutions back, and they sued ministry officials, making their lives difficult. Today, the ministry refuses to take over institutions in trouble, preferring instead to send advisory task forces to deal with problems.

The Ministry of Education also lacks the authority to close schools down. It can only rely on its power of evaluation. Technical and vocational colleges that fail to pass muster three times in a row lose 50 student openings from their quota, while universities that see their enrollment fall to 70 percent of their capacity for three consecutive years will have their student quota lowered by 10-30 percent. At present, 20 different university departments are slowly being diminished in scope.

Tunghai University's Chen says without mincing words that Taiwan's higher education community cannot avoid the reality that some universities will have to close. Japan shut down five universities last year. Public universities should take the lead in merging their operations, but the thorny issue of private school amalgamation also cannot be ignored. By law, all of Taiwan's universities are "incorporated foundations," meaning that their assets and shares cannot be bought or sold.

"The founders of these schools worry about what they can take back," says Chen, who wonders if there needs to be a reasonable and legal mechanism to deal with the situation.

The unemployment problem among Taiwan's university graduates is another indication of the distortions in the country's higher education system.

As the challenges mount, Taiwan can no longer afford to proceed at a snail's pace in consolidating its higher education institutions. Otherwise, many fear that the drawn-out process will lead the country's higher education system on the road to a slow suicide that will continue to hurt young people well into the future.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier

Keywords:

好友人數