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Reinventing Tertiary Education

Aiming for a Unique Profile

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Aiming for a Unique Profile

Source:Chien-Tong Wang

Dwindling student numbers, insufficient resources and global competition are forcing Taiwan’s colleges and universities to reinvent themselves or become obsolete. A unique niche with precise positioning may be the answer.

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Aiming for a Unique Profile

By Jenny Cheng
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 617 )

On February 16, the results of Taiwan’s university entrance exam, the so-called General Scholastic Ability Test, were made public. Across the island, seniors compared their test results to the admission requirements of more than 2,000 departments at the over 100 colleges and universities in Taiwan.

...today, students put personal interests, strengths and talents, as well as future trends ahead of university rankings, prestige and grade averages when picking the universities and departments they would most like to attend.

On this fateful day, Ma Ruo-rong, a senior at National Chia-Yi Girls’ Senior High School, went home only after dutifully finishing her homework at the school library. Ma originally hoped to win a place at the Department of Educational Management of National Taipei University of Education. However, since she didn’t score well enough in the entrance exam, she applied instead for admission to the business school of a private university in order to make her parents happy.

 “I want to study education,” remarks Ma, somewhat frustrated that she followed her parents’ wishes. But she is quick to indicate that she has not completely given up on studying her dream subject. “Many schools have education-related courses or education departments where I could study,” she notes, not ruling out the possibility of crossing into the educational field at some point in the future.

In the past, parents and educators used to worry that students were not well informed about the different departments and subjects. But today, students put personal interests, strengths and talents, as well as future trends ahead of university rankings, prestige and grade averages when picking the universities and departments they would most like to attend.

This means that there might be a real chance for radical change in the tertiary education sector after years of stagnation.

Global Competition, Low Birth Rate

University executives, however, are actually quite nervous about the preferences of high school graduates when it comes to picking a university.

New student enrollment rates at colleges and universities are a testament to the seriousness of the situation. Last year, 151 departments registered zero enrollment. Total enrollment was below 60 percent at 17 colleges and universities, a threshold set by the Ministry of Education as one of the indicators warranting “guidance and observation.”

“The impact of the low birth rate has not yet been felt,” says Lio Mon-chi, professor at the Department of Political Economy of National Sun Ya-tsen University and the school’s former head of academic affairs. Lio expects that the effects of Taiwan's low birth rate, which translates into declining student numbers, will become evident five years down the road. The Ministry of Education forecasts that the number of newly enrolled first-year students will decline below 200,000 for the first time in 2022, a downward trend that will continue in the future. (See Table)

Two decades ago, Hsueh Cherng-tay, professor at the Department of Sociology of National Taiwan University, had already predicted the problems that the expansion of tertiary education would create for Taiwan. Hsueh describes the low birth rate as sounding an alarm on Taiwan’s looming talent shortage. Universities must develop a unique profile to attract students amid declining enrollment, according to Hsueh.

The tertiary education sector not only have to cope with plummeting student numbers because of the low birth rate; universities from around the globe are now promoting themselves overseas to attract promising students.

One day after Taiwan’s university entrance exam results were out, the Chinese University of Hong Kong dished out full scholarships for top-placed students. Lee Yen-yi, head of the Department of Higher Education at the Ministry of Education, points out that leading Chinese universities such as Peking University and Tsinghua University have budgets in the order of NT$80 billion, while the higher education budget for all of Taiwan stood at NT$230 billion in 2015. This means a single Chinese university can spend as much as one third of all of the colleges and universities in Taiwan combined.

Having to work with tight fiscal resources while foreign universities with full war chests woo Taiwan’s best students is a cause for anxiety and frustration among the island’s university presidents. For most, the typical reaction is to bring down costs.

Barely hiding her indignation, Tai Po-fen, sociology professor at Fu-jen Catholic University, reveals that many private universities demand that professors tour schools like sales personnel to promote their schools and boost enrollment. “If they really don’t have students, then departments are merged; a civil engineering professor might even have to teach in the cosmetology department,” she fumes.

As universities strive to obtain good evaluations and win funding for all sorts of projects amid fierce competition, the focus has shifted to research at the expense of teaching. At the same time, universities have come to resemble each other so much that they have not much left to stick out from the crowd.

“Many schools think that NTU is the best, so they aspire to transform themselves into another NTU and lose their direction in the process,” observes Chan Sheng-ju, deputy director of the Office of Research and Development, National Chung Cheng University, and research fellow with the High Education Evaluation & Accreditation Council of Taiwan.

“Higher education must return to student-centered study,” declared Education Minister Pan Wen-chung before the national conference for college and university presidents in January. Pan drew a large tree to drum home his message that the ministry's previous NT$50 billion per five years grant program to build top-notch universities would be replaced by a "rooting higher education” program that focuses on educating competitive individuals.

In an interview with CommonWealth Magazine, Lee explained the goals of the program, saying that each college or university will be given basic funding that can be invested in student learning and the improvement of teaching quality. Further funding will be made available for schools that propose distinctive programs matching the school’s individual conditions.

Responding to Societal Demands

As a result, it will be crucial for universities to develop a distinctive, unique profile to prevail in the higher education sector. “University education has evolved from education for the elite in the past to universal education. In response to complex societal demands, it must differentiate to fulfill different functions,” explains Chan. Inevitably, different types of universities will emerge to meet the challenges and solve the problems that modern societies face.

Universities collaborate with local industry to integrate big data, programming languages and industry 4.0 development.

Huang Wen-ling, director of the MOE’s Department of Overall Planning and a former head of its Higher Education and Transformation Office, analyzes the common points that warrant a turnaround in higher education.

Universities collaborate with local industry to integrate big data, programming languages and industry 4.0 development. Some schools integrate social issues such as long-term care and the continuation of the new southbound policy.

Last year, the National Development Council announced its Industry Trends Analysis 2015-2025, which concluded that talent will be needed in big data analysis, robotics, the Internet of Things, electronic commerce, financial technology, green energy and long-term care. Many departments are jumping on the bandwagon now and are expected to follow with their own reform efforts within one or two years.

Catching Up with the Trends

Last year, Yuan Ze University, a private university in Taoyuan, made it a requirement for first-year students to learn computer programming. Faculty from the Department of Computer Science and Engineering collaborated with their colleagues at other departments to develop a programming languages course that meets the needs of various subject areas.

Even students at the Department of Chinese Linguistics and Literature are developing apps. “The point is to take away students’ fear of science, to let them understand computer logic and combine it with a literary education to cultivate indispensable skills,” says department head Choong Yee Voon.

At Ming Chuan University, the Chinese name of the Department of Applied Statistics and Information Science was changed from “information science” to "data science” to reflect a greater focus on big data. Department Chair Lin Jen-jen believes that the combination of statistics with data science gives her department an edge over other applied statistics departments. Last year, the data center of the Hon Hai/Foxconn Technology Group offered internships to the department’s students, indicating that the university’s strategy is paying off.

Eying business opportunities in green materials and energy, National Taitung University last year established a new interdisciplinary program of green and information technology. The response was overwhelming, leading to an enrollment of 100 percent.

In the eyes of Enghui Iuu, secretary general of the Taiwan Private School Employees’ Union (TPSEU), setting up novel departments and transforming old ones will not necessarily solve the problems of tertiary education as long as the overall environment does not change. He believes that innovation in higher education will remain difficult as long as tuition cannot be set freely and many legal restrictions apply. The only thing colleges and universities can do is cater to market needs.

Deregulation and Program Choices

Some universities believe jumping on the bandwagon of market trends by opening new departments is not enough, as university department used to be separate and distinct from each other, so that picking the wrong department amounted to choosing the wrong future. Instead, cultivating the talent of the future requires reforming the education system, programs and teaching methods.   

“Universities should design interdisciplinary programs that are college- or school-based. They should not allow the departments to tie down students with compulsory courses,” says Lee. She points out that the constituent colleges and schools of universities rather than individual departments will be the focus of future reform.

In Taichung, Feng Chia University was setting an example for all of Taiwan last year by restructuring its prestigious architecture department, which has a history of more than half a century, to train interdisciplinary architectural talent.

Even earlier, in 2014, Feng Chia University has already established an International School of Technology and Management that offers three dual-degree bachelor programs in cooperation with RMIT University in Australia as well as Purdue University and San Jose State University in the United States. All of the courses in the programs are taught entirely in English. Students take basic compulsory courses and innovation-related projects in their first and second year. In years three and four they go abroad and study electrical/computer engineering (Purdue), business and innovation (RMIT) or business analytics (San Jose) at the respective partner university.

National Tsing Hua University in Hsinchu also launched dual-degree programs seven years ago, and this year boosted the number of degrees that can be earned at the university from 150 to 350. 

As more universities dare to experiment and take innovative approaches, some shoot to prominence as “sought after" universities almost overnight. In 2016, two universities in Taiwan boasted enrollment rates of 100 percent. One is the private CTBC Financial Management College in Tainan, which took in its first students in the autumn of 2015.

Targeted Expertise, Cultivating Specialists

Originally founded as Hsing-Kuo University, the college was renamed in June of 2015 after CTBC Financial Holdings Co. Ltd. took over its management, restructuring it into three faculties. Targeting the needs of the financial industry, the college trains the kind of talent that banks and financial institutions are looking for, accepting just 150 students per year.

Universities need to analyze where their students come from, how their scores are distributed, and how the students perform after entering university in order to be able to understand their needs and further position their departments.

The college is a case in point, showing that universities must continuously adjust to social and labor market changes. Universities also need to base their decision-making much more on objective data than before.

“The environment changes so quickly; it’s beyond imagination. While many departments might have performed well a few years ago, they lost steam later on,” remarks Wu Tsung-ming, head of the Office of Academic Affairs at National Chung Hsing University. Universities need to analyze where their students come from, how their scores are distributed, and how the students perform after entering university in order to be able to understand their needs and further position their departments.

Universities everywhere are feeling the looming higher education crisis. If they want to extricate themselves from this predicament, they will need to offer student-based learning, innovative programs and interdisciplinary setups. Feng Chia University President Lee Bing-Jean believes that only universities that systematically restructure programs and instruction in line with our rapidly changing times have a chance at survival.

“If universities innovate and transform solely because they want to remain in business, such strategies are not truly benefitting the students,” notes Lee in a warning against blind actionism.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz


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