The Higher Education ‘Yushan Project’
An Initiative that Misses the Point
Taiwan’s government has proposed a “Yushan Project” to stem the brain drain it says is plaguing academia. But in a commentary done for Crossing, writer Chen Kuan-ting takes issue with the program’s focus.
An Initiative that Misses the PointBy Kuan-ting Chen
I’ve been discussing with some young professors in Taiwan how resources are allocated for research and higher education. One program that will inject resources into higher education, the “Yushan Project,” has potential but needs to be adjusted and improved.
The “Yushan Project” is designed to recruit international talent and retain local talent, and will boost funding and provide higher pay to elite, heavyweight research talent in Taiwan and abroad.
The most important concept underlying the project is that “because” we need top academics in Taiwan, we should “therefore” increase the pay of these outstanding people to ensure that they stay (or come) to Taiwan.
It’s a concept that seems quite intuitive. At present, the salaries Taiwan’s academic sector pays top-notch, senior researchers falls far short of the compensation offered by Taiwan’s “global headhunting” Asian neighbors. So the approach seems to be well-intended and does not have anything fundamentally wrong with it. But I’m thinking about another question.
In recruiting this top academic talent, what do we want them to do?
If our main objective is simply to “keep them in Taiwan,” then increasing their pay makes perfect sense.
But if we want them to both “stay in Taiwan and teach our students” or “strengthen their interaction here with Taiwanese academics so they encourage and push each other,” is that the most efficient way to allocate resources?
NT$5 Million-a-Year Lure
The plan intends to pay a “bonus” of NT$5 million a year for three years to big-name professors to come to Taiwan – and then what?
A key provision of the “Yushan Project” is to identify so-called internationally renowned academics and recruit them.
“Universities can submit their requirements for recruiting top international talent who work in fields that are national development priorities, and pay them up to NT$5 million a year on top of their monthly salaries for a period of three years,” the program’s guidelines state.
Beyond “international recruitment,” the program’s funding can also subsidize the “retention of domestic talent.”
Image: CRS PHOTO＠Shutterstock
A globally renowned, high-caliber, highly-skilled elite scholar who does research in Taiwan or mentors students, however, faces the same constraint as everybody else – there are only 24 hours in a day. Top scholars can only advise a certain number of students and can only interact with a certain number of other researchers in a single day.
As such, any investment in a small number of top-notch scholars to entice them to come to Taiwan or keep them here will unfortunately only have a very limited spillover effect.
If the same resources were invested in outstanding professors with considerable potential but who have yet to make names for themselves, wouldn’t we be using those resources more efficiently and broadening their use? Shouldn’t we be finding more people who are willing to give their all in Taiwan?
In fact, the logic behind concentrating resources in inviting “international heavyweights” to Taiwan is anything but a surprise: For a long time, we have sought “quick fixes.”
As a result, whether in academic, business or cultural circles, as long as we found the “most famous” or “biggest-name” professor, corporate guru or creative personality to put on a splashy show, such as a big lecture or a mass activity, that was considered an “achievement” in “aligning Taiwan with the world” or having “a great master see Taiwan.”
And after these “international heavyweights” have come to Taiwan and their hefty salaries have been paid, what tangible help have they actually provided Taiwan? Sadly, very few people seem to care.
An Underwhelming Pay Raise
Flexible salaries are necessary, but the NT$5,445 monthly pay increase only for “professors” is not.
Another key aspect of the “Yushan Project” is the idea of flexible salaries within a “Higher Education Plan.” The project’s guidelines stipulate that:
“Schools in the Higher Education Plan with research centers ranked as being internationally competitive shall spend 20 percent of government subsidies and those not having internationally competitive research centers shall spend 5 percent of government subsidies to support flexible salary payments as needed to retain and recruit talent. Total spending will be an estimated NT$2 billion. Standards guiding flexible salary payments are to be set by the schools and submitted to the [Ministry of Education] for its reference. To encourage schools to strengthen their faculties, every institution shall use funding received under the Higher Education Plan to increase the hiring of young teachers and researchers (from either inside or outside the system). The Ministry of Education has not set limits on the amount and percentage of funding used for this purpose and completely respects the plans established by each school."
I think the idea of having schools decide for themselves how much to invest in retaining or recruiting talent based on their specific needs is a very good policy.
But what comes next – increasing professors’ academic research subsidies by 10 percent – reflects the myth alluded to above that “senior or famous equals professional.” The guidelines say that:
“Professor-level academic research grants to be increased by 10 percent; they will be increased from the existing NT$54,450 to NT$59,895. Public university professors will have their total monthly incomes adjusted from NT$107,525 per month to NT$112,970 per month, or by NT$5,445 per month, equal to a raise of about 5 percent.”
In economics, there is something called the “Matthew effect.” Simply put, it refers to the accumulated advantage obtained by individuals or companies, often leading to the phenomenon in which “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”
This “effect” is especially evident in Taiwan’s academic world – compared to “associate professors” and “assistant professors,” “full professors” in Taiwan
have accumulated many more resources and competitive advantages over the years. Several “big-time professors” have even obtained countless “outsourced projects” that they can then dole out as they see fit.
In fact, giving a pay raise only to professor-level researchers not only strengthens the “Matthew effect” in academic circles but is also relatively meaningless to begin with.
Recruiting not All about Money
It’s also important to realize that recruiting talent involves more than money and that systems are even more important.
The focal point of Taiwan’s “talent policy” should be to actively encourage and recruit the next-generation academic army and broaden the base of research and academic talent to the greatest extent possible. These talented individuals should also be put in position to really “be used by Taiwan” – whether in academic research or industry-academia cooperation, or by getting involved in businesses or think tanks.
Also, the search for “international talent” doesn’t necessarily have to be exclusively conducted abroad. Taiwan’s higher education system has long trained foreign students, and many schools have international exchange programs with foreign institutions.
Yet when these students graduate and want to remain in Taiwan to do research and contribute what they’ve learned, they face a minefield of “technical obstacles,” such as work visa, tax, and health insurance constraints.
The draft Act for the Recruitment and Employment of Foreign Professional Talent submitted by the National Development Council stipulates that: “Foreign professional talents who intend to work professionally in the country and need a long time to look for employment shall apply for a visa at an overseas mission. They will be allowed a stay of no more than a year and will not be subject to restrictions stipulated in the Immigration Act.”
The concept is similar to rules covering the United States’ OPT (optional practical training) visa program for graduated students, yet Taiwan’s elected officials have questioned the proposal, wondering “if somebody needs up to a year to find a job, can that person be considered talent?”
If that kind of mindset and the “closed-door” policies and systems associated with it cannot be quickly reformed, then even if salaries are increased it will still be hard for Taiwan to retain talent and even harder to recruit overseas talent.
Change the Focus
In the grand scheme of things, mid-level academics and researchers should be the top priority.
If the Yushan Project can more evenly distribute taxpayer funds among professors, associate professors and assistant professors and even devote more resources to young professors, that would help more effectively achieve the policy’s objectives.
As for the Yushan Project’s focus on “international recruitment,” I’m even more convinced that it should not target the “most famous” “big-name scholars,” but rather invest resources in young, mid-level academics with development potential and bright futures.
Image: CRS PHOTO＠Shutterstock
If we want to go “southbound” [into Southeast and South Asia], as is the case right now, or even move into the Middle East and Africa, for example, we need to develop a more in-depth understanding of those markets, their economies, and languages and culture. With this in mind, do we want to look for one “omniscient international master” or a group of energetic mid-level scholars and researchers who are specialized in those regions or have even lived in those places for a long time?
I’m not saying it’s not important to seek “depth” in academic research. It’s just that we need to look at the long-term neglect within Taiwan’s academic circles of becoming more “aligned with the international community” and also consider how much time needs to be spent actually teaching students.
In the current initial stage of injecting more resources into higher education, we should put a priority on first accumulating basic knowledge related to the international situation and practical experience related to international exchanges, and then advance to more in-depth research. Going “from breadth to depth” will enable students, professors and researchers to grow together.
In other words, in the first stage, rather than having “famous international masters” serve as “door gods,”
we need many mid-level scholars and talented researchers from Taiwan and countries around the world to work together with Taiwan.
I do think we should carefully consider how to recruit and retain overseas talent, and that through basic adjustments the Yushan Project can be made better.
Translated from the Chinese article by Luke Sabatier
[Editor’s note: The Yushan Project is aimed at recruiting top professors from abroad and retaining top academics at home. Up to 1,000 elite teachers and researchers (up to 500 from Taiwan and 500 from overseas) identified as “Yushan Scholars” would receive an annual stipend of NT$5 million under the program for three-year periods to supplement their university pay in Taiwan, where full-time professors earn an average of about NT$1.5 million per year. The plan would also increase research allowances for public university professors by 10 percent, or NT$5,445, a month, and increase funding to schools to give them greater flexibility in rewarding top talent.
The government, which hopes to put the project in place by 2018, has estimated it will cost up to NT$4.15 billion a year and help 19,000 academics, though the main beneficiaries stand to be the elite “Yushan Scholars.”]
Kuan-ting Chen is a columnist for Crossing, SOS reader, Taiwan People News, and other outlets. He founded Koko Farm Africa in Uganda and the Formosan Enterprise Institute.
《Crossing》 features 200 (still increasing) new generation writers from over 110 cities around the globe. They have no fancy rhetoric and sophisticated knowledge, just genuine views and sincere narratives. They are simply our friends who happen to stay abroad, generously and naturally sharing their stories, experience and perspectives.