Tsing Hua University
Finding Talent Where Tests Cannot
As the proving ground for the government’s Multi-Star Project, National Tsing Hua University continues its admissions reform measures, taking just 30 percent of its students via examination. The institution believes that the solutions of the future will not be found in standardized tests.
Finding Talent Where Tests CannotBy Rebecca Lin, Jenny Cheng
In spite of his quiet appearance, Sung Chun-yen (宋淳諺) is quite talkative once he gets going; the bottle of orange juice on the desk has gone untouched for an entire hour as he holds forth. This August, he will set out for the United States to study at the University of Michigan.
Sung is the only member of this year’s incoming class of international Ph.D. candidates in mechanical engineering at the university to hail from Taiwan. He will also receive a full scholarship that covers US$40,000 a year in tuition and sundry expenses, plus US$2,000 a month in living expenses.
Asked if the imminent prospect of competing with some of the world’s top talents makes him nervous, he replies, “It feels a lot like it did when I decided to stay at my local high school. Educating yourself is a long-term undertaking, and the longer you keep at it, the lonelier it gets as the number of fellow students dwindles. But one must persevere.”
Taxpayer-funded Institutions Should Give Back
In 2007, Sung entered National Tsing Hua University from Taichung’s Cingshuei Senior High School (清水高中) to begin his studies in power mechanical engineering under the government’s “Multi-Star Project.” The same year, 132 other students who also applied through the Multi-Star program joined him at Tsing Hua, hailing from 44 high schools around Taiwan – the most geographically diverse group of high school students the institution had accepted to date.
At present, Multi-Star Project students have grown to comprise 15 percent of Tsing Hua University’s freshman class, or around 200 students. “I told the ‘Stars’ students not to feel like they have taken advantage of regular students,” senior vice president Hwai-pwu Chou (周懷樸) relates, recalling his remarks at the Multi-Star Project Launch Day event held in Ilan. “Tsing Hua is funded by the taxpayers, so we must give back to the entire population of Taiwan, not just the Da’an District of Taipei. The idea is to increase the diversity of the student population on campus,” he says.
In response to the Ministry of Education’s “World-class University Initiative” (also known as the “Aim for the Top University Project” or the “5-Year, 50 Billion” project), Tsing Hua University outlined a plan in 2006 to add an additional 300 students within five years, half of whom would be drawn from the Multi-Star Project. “Students’ scholastic achievements are inseparable from their motivations and commitment,” says Chou. “This type of student can simply not be reached via conventional testing.”
At first, accepting students through the Multi-Star program provoked a fairly significant backlash on campus. According to the data Chou presented to various department chairpersons, the standard for incoming students might be five points lower than that for individuals taking the standard aptitude entrance exam or designated exams. Nonetheless, Chou managed to convince them to give it a try,
In order to avoid letting Multi-Star students be judged by others or suffer feelings of inferiority, the school has repeatedly reiterated that the quota was instituted on top of regular admissions. At the same time, a dual advisor system was instituted to keep tabs on Multi-Star students’ situations.
Defying assumptions and expectations, when grades for the first class came out, Multi-Star Project students ranked in the top 39.56th percentile on average, well within the top half. Furthermore, they took 12 of the school’s 28 academic awards, far exceeding the performance of regular students.
Tsing Hua’s “Star” students have demonstrated that they easily measure up to students admitted via application or examination. Rongshun Chen (陳榮順), vice president and director of the Center for Undergraduate Admission Strategies, analyzed the average cumulative performance of students matriculating via various channels between 2010 and 2014, and found that Multi-Star Project students performed the best of all, with average grades ranking in the top 44.53 percentile compared to individual applicants at 47.93 percent and students entering via examinations at 54.38 percent.
As for performance outside of strictly academic grades, 2.25 percent of Multi-Star students head up a school club, slightly higher than the average of 2.18% across the student body. In fact, Multi-Star students only trail students matriculating via application by a small margin in the area of international exchange, at 3.35 versus 4.11 percent, respectively, yet still rank higher than exam entrants.
“Multi-Star students have performed consistently since the first matriculating class, and the key factor is their strong motivation for learning,” Chen says. This also shows that students ranked among the top one percent must have diverse capabilities, strong ambition, and good time management skills if they are to stay ahead of the pack in the long term.
In Sung’s case, he joined the school’s swim team, capturing an individual bronze medal in the butterfly at the National University Games even as he maintained his Department of Power Mechanical Engineering ranking in the top 10 throughout his student career. In addition to taking part in a mountain expedition team, he also found the time and energy to serve as a volunteer in Nepal.
Such outstanding performance could be considered surprising from a student like Sung, a former member of the “cattle class,” or rank-and-file students with little interest in furthering their education. “The advanced classes just take tests every day until nine at night, and my dad didn’t want my life to be like that,” Sung says. Accordingly, he transferred from the advanced class to the regular class, where he continued to practice swimming and developed his aptitude for independent learning.
When he went from junior to senior high school, his father suggested that he attend a nearby school, and his mother similarly hoped he could be home for dinner every night. Despite achieving a PR score of 99 on the general aptitude examination, which entitled him entry to Taichung First Senior High School, he opted instead to attend Cingshuei Senior High School, a five-minute walk from home. Three years later, he had the distinction of being the school’s only graduate to gain entry to National Tsing Hua University.
“Many people stress competition in high school, but in retrospect the real competition is vying for spots with the best students from around the world.” Sung feels that well-rounded development is a life-long matter, and that rather than stressing academics in high school and university, he would be better served by discovering his own interests and waiting until graduate school to focus on academic competition.
Presently, National Tsing Hua University has opened 70 percent of its admissions to individual applicants and students from the Multi-Star program, while drawing the remaining 30 percent from examinees. This has led to whispers among the country’s more celebrated high schools that Tsing Hua is engaged in “poaching” talent to get a leg up on other schools.
However, NTHU not only endeavors to attract good students, but students hailing from different geographical areas in Taiwan. Chen recommended last year that Tsing Hua’s different academic departments open admissions to applicants from Taiwan’s outer lying islands to increase their matriculation rate. This way, they could end up returning to serve their own communities in the future and contribute to local development.
Earlier this year, Chen led a team to present informational sessions in Makung on Penghu and Kinmen high schools. “Competing for top students has never been our strength, but the school needs students from diverse backgrounds if the students we train are to have the capacity to resolve diverse issues,” he says.
In the effort to boost diversity, NTHU has introduced a “Sunrise” program directed at economically disadvantaged students; the “Gleaners” program for autonomous learners, outstanding students in single disciplines, or those engaging in charity work; Tsing Hua College BA candidates in fine arts, music and innovative design, or innovation leadership; as well as providing for individual recruitment of outstanding athletes, international students, and overseas Chinese.
In addition to establishing an independent center for admission strategies to make recruitment more professionalized, Tsing Hua has set up a database on students’ academic experiences to help professors better evaluate applications as well as form a basis for ongoing analysis of students’ academic performance.
In a world turned upside-down, the paths to success are different from before. “The challenges the next generation faces are totally different from those faced by previous generations,” says university president Hong Hocheng (賀陳弘). These days, universities must train people for independent learning and autonomous existence, which require generalized skills. “The era of admission-by-testing is over,” he declares.
Translated from the Chinese by David Toman