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Scrambling to Make the Grade

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Scrambling to Make the Grade

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The convergence of fewer students, globalization and pressure-packed evaluations is brewing a perfect storm for Taiwan's higher education system. Where will it all lead?

Scrambling to Make the Grade

By Fuyuan Hsiao
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 507 )

On a hot muggy day at the end of August, the distant whines of electric drills pierce the muggy calm of the National Taiwan University campus. Workers are scrambling to complete the new NT$1.6 billion College of Social Sciences building designed by renowned Japanese architect Toyo Ito.

The majestic structure stands as a symbol of the school's vitality, but it masks a sad truth: Taiwan's higher education system is actually a luxury cruise liner that has stalled.

In CommonWealth Magazine's first-ever survey of Taiwanese university professors, conducted in September, professors commonly believed that the biggest problem facing the country's higher education system was students' lack of interest in learning. More than 40 percent of the professors went so far as to say that a university education today does not help improve the quality of students.

The question is, why?

One of the main reasons is that university teachers are too busy trying to rack up evaluation "points" and marginalizing their students' interests in the process.

The 'Points' Obsession

To Po-fen Tai, a sociology professor at Fu Jen Catholic University, the word "points" in an academic context stirs up deep feelings of alarm.

After Tai got her doctorate degree 11 years ago, she worked for two years as a research assistant at Academia Sinica, before finally finding a teaching job at a private university. At the time, the school was installing a new teacher evaluation system based on four indicators – research, teaching, service, and counseling – that scored teachers on points accumulated under an "optimal formula."

Points could be gained by publishing papers, recruiting students for the school, "and even for appearing in the media. The point totals were different for appearing in a national or local newspaper," Tai recalls, her sense of incredulity at the system's strange criteria as strong today as it was many years ago.

The "points scorecard" was part of the school's website, with teachers required to post their own results, from which an overall ranking was determined.

In the system's first year, Tai only earned 25 points. "I was shocked when I saw where I was ranked," she says of her placement in the bottom 5 percent, which meant she could not accrue seniority. Stunned, Tai worked 12 hours a day writing papers and even going to university fairs to hand out flyers and making calls to recruit students.

"I was really on edge. All I could think about was getting points as quickly as possible to earn promotion and then getting out," Tai says.

Tai's agonizing scrape with the points system is also commonly experienced among public university teachers.

One assistant professor at a well-established public university explains that her school allocates varying point levels based on the periodical in which an article is published. Teachers can also earn points for organizing international seminars or for being awarded National Science Council projects. In the past few years, she has not published, and her point total has fallen short because of it. Her heartbeat quickens the moment she steps onto campus every day. When department meetings are held, she feels intense stress that results in stomach pains and must put up with the humiliation of getting "gentle reminders" from the department head.

She gets evaluated once every two years. Last month, she was again subjected to a review at a department meeting for a lack of points.

"Every day, I'm worried about losing my job. How can I find time to counsel students?" she wonders. She has not revealed her predicament to her parents, proud to have a daughter who is a "university professor", without realizing how close she may be to losing her prized title.  

Evaluations: Where Points and Money Converge

This arbitrary points system originated with the university evaluation system, which is closely tied to money.

Seven years ago, Taiwan's Ministry of Education commissioned the Higher Education Evaluation & Accreditation Council of Taiwan to conduct compulsory evaluations of every university department in five-year cycles, with the evaluations expected to affect enrollment and government subsidies. At the same time, universities began to use an "N-year clause" (requiring teachers to earn promotion within "N" years) and teacher evaluations as the basis for promotions and contract renewals.

Under this KPI (key performance indicator) system, accumulating points became the most important criteria for universities to obtain public funding and for teachers to earn promotion and keep their jobs.

"University teachers are like credit cards and the universities are the cardholders. The more the cards are swiped, the more points they accumulate. Those points can then be redeemed with the bank (the Ministry of Education) for funding," says Kong-fah Cheng, an associate professor in National Chung Cheng University's Graduate School of Marketing Management. The system has become deeply ingrained in academic circles, generating many unpleasant side effects.

When Tai attended a class reunion in 2011, the conversation at first centered on catching up. But then talk turned to the many strange trends occurring in academia, and the more Tai and her classmates vented their frustrations, the angrier they became. They decided to join with other university teachers in organizing a union and held 17 or 18 preparatory meetings to thoroughly examine Taiwan's higher education system.

The evaluation system ranked at the top of their list of targets to criticize. Last week, the Taiwan Higher Education Union released the results of a survey in which 84 percent of university teachers polled felt the evaluation system did not enhance education quality.

In CommonWealth Magazine's survey, 65 percent of respondents cited the "excessive but loose" evaluation system as one of the biggest problems facing Taiwan's higher education system.

Private companies commonly see KPI systems as capable of improving competitiveness, so why when used in academia are they considered to have a negative effect on education quality?

Using a points system to assess performance is not an inherently flawed approach, because universities and professors need to have their performance evaluated. Instead, the problem stems from teachers being so busy chasing points, which are primarily tied to research, that teaching effectiveness and enthusiasm are largely ignored.

At public universities, research accounts for more than 60 percent of the total evaluation. Even at private universities, where teaching is the primary focus, research still accounts for about 50 percent of the overall evaluation.

"We are not 'valuing' research. We are 'biased' toward research," stresses Mon-chi Lio, the vice president for academic affairs at National Sun Yat-sen University. And academia in Taiwan, he says, approaches research with pretty much one thought in mind: will it be published in a foreign journal?

The 'i Craze'

"Taiwan is the country that has gone the craziest over the 'i,'" says a disgruntled Cheng.

The "i" indicator refers to the number of citations one has in the international bibliography of periodical literature. It stands out as the dominant factor in the evaluation system and serves as a key money-making tool for universities. The Ministry of Education and the National Science Council rely almost exclusively on two key indexes – the SCI (the Science Citation Index) and the SSCI (the Social Science Citation Index) – to determine grants, university teacher evaluations and whether or not a university has a chance to make it into the world's top 500.

In Taiwan's academic community, the number of "i's" teachers have indicates their worth. Many universities even hold courses to teach professors how to submit articles to foreign periodicals.

Unfortunately for Taiwan, this research-based and points-driven evaluation system is wasting the brilliant minds of Taiwan's more than 100,000 university teachers.

In April 2011, Ming-hui Peng, a professor in National Tsing Hua University's Department of Power Mechanical Engineering, resigned to make a statement. Calling the five-year NT$50 billion plan (see box) the "beginning of the death of Taiwan," Peng blasted higher education administrators for using the "SCI" and "SSCI" indexes to "kidnap" outstanding academics by forcing them to present papers valued by the international academic community while ignoring the needs of their students and the research community.

The private sector is also alarmed at how divorced from the real world university research in Taiwan has become.

Eric Y.T. Chuo, the chairman of precision components maker Hiwin Technologies Corp., charged publicly in August that universities have so overemphasized the importance of SCI citations that university graduates only know how to do research but have little practical knowledge and are unable to keep up with company needs. Chuo said it has gotten so bad that some electrical engineering majors cannot even tell the difference between 110 and 220 volts.

So who should be held accountable for this evaluation system gone awry?

The Ministry of Education, which allocates resources based on evaluation results and implements higher education policies, must assume some of the blame.

Former education minister Huang Jong-tsun, the architect of the five-year NT$50 billion initiative launched in 2006 to develop world-class universities and research institutions that has led to some of the distortions in the system, defends his plan.

"The indicators are not wrong, but systems influence behavior. All of academia has ended up calculating points," he says.

The 2016 Time Bomb

Aside from the obsession with points and "i" citations, Taiwan's aging population and low birthrate is another obstacle slowing down the country's higher education system.

Over the past 15 years, childbirths in Taiwan have fallen by a third, and beginning in 2016, nearly 30,000 fewer students than today will be attending their first year of university or vocational college, equivalent to the current enrollment levels of 39 universities.

"In four or five years, one-third of all universities will have problems. This is a battle for survival," Huang says bluntly of the looming education tsunami.

Schools that have had trouble recruiting students in recent years have already spawned a "flood theory."

"Right now the flooding has reached the first floor and we are still on the third floor. We have to keep climbing, and whoever can't, will drown," says one professor at a private university.

The threat of drowning is most profound for universities languishing in the lower echelons of the academic performance rankings. The professor cites the example of a technical college in Pingdong County where enrollment has plunged from 10,000 students eight years ago to 2,000 students last year. This year, it only enrolled 100 new students, and it is only a matter of time before the school is forced to shut down.

To help his school retain students, the professor fears demanding too much of students and cannot flunk them. "There's a lot of guilt in being a teacher today," he says.

The Most Prized Skill: Marketing

Seven years ago, An-pang Kao retired from National Chengchi University and became the president of the private Kainan University in Taoyuan County. It was the first time in an education career spanning more than 30 years that he found recruiting students to be so difficult.

To be prepared for the future, Kao has spent time simulating which departments will be swept away by the 2016 higher education tempest. Based on the results, he has reorganized certain departments and channeled more enrollment openings to the hottest academic disciplines. To get more students, he has asked Kainan professors to teach Japanese for free at National Yang Ming Senior High School a few kilometers away.

The percentage of students who actually attend the school after being admitted is one of the KPIs for each department head and must exceed 90 percent. Those who meet the target are rewarded with a recruiting bonus and receive more funding.

"Every university president has to become good friends with high school principals," Kao says, as he scrolls down the dozens of phone numbers for high school principals stored in his mobile phone, a sign of his realization that one of the most important skills for university professors today is marketing.

Higher Education's Perfect Storm

The dwindling size of Taiwan's university-age population will not likely knock the top universities off their perches, but they face a potential crisis of another kind. The five-year NT$50 billion program that was launched in 2006 and renewed in 2011 expires in 2016. Nobody can guarantee if that funding, allocated to only the top universities, will be renewed again. As universities around the world fiercely compete for talent and funding, Taiwan's top higher education institutions are likely to face increasing pressures of their own.

These many trends – fewer students, globalization and a poorly devised evaluation system based on points – are converging to form the perfect higher education storm in 2016.

Fifteen years ago, the admission rate of students who took the college entrance exam was 60 percent – already higher than before – but it continued to climb to 88 percent this year, a sign of the crazy pace of university expansion that has essentially turned higher education into just another commodity. Capitalism's market mechanism has now reached onto campuses, with all universities, from the best to the worst, pursuing consumers and cash flows. The mission of higher education institutions to cultivate talent for the country has all but vanished.

The government, saddled with NT$5 trillion in debt, no longer has the wherewithal to ride to the rescue and invest heavily in education. But there are three steps that can be taken immediately that might take on some of the knottier problems facing Taiwan's higher education system.

1. Improve the evaluation system for universities and teachers: The Ministry of Education and the National Science Council are clearly aware of the problem. In June, Cyrus C.Y. Chu, the head of the National Science Council, and the agency's three deputy chiefs issued an opinion paper titled "How We Should Look at Scientific Research Indicators." The statement declared that the quantity of papers published would no longer serve as the most important assessment indicator in reviewing research projects.

2. Diversify the Ministry of Education's financial grant system: Research and the number of articles published in international journals should not be the only criteria used in performance evaluations that determine funding. Teaching evaluations should carry far more weight.

3. Every university should find its own unique strengths and market niches: In researching this story, CommonWealth Magazine reporters found many universities working hard to develop special characteristics and improve the quality of their teaching to better tailor their "products" (students) to market needs.

From a university governance perspective, Liu Shuen-zen, a professor in National Taiwan University's College of Management, suggests that people involved in higher education should first clearly identify "what the purpose of a university is" before setting KPIs and reward systems, to prevent the distorted points phenomenon.

The best scenes at a university are not sleeping students, point-collecting professors and point-calculating presidents, but rather pairs of eyes burning with passion to learn. If the system is not quickly reformed, the flames of passion in those eyes may be extinguished for a long, long time.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier


The Five-year NT$50 Billion Plan

The Ministry of Education launched a plan in 2006 to develop world-class universities and top research institutions. A five-year NT$50 billion special budget was created to fund the initiative. The goal was to have at least one Taiwanese university ranked among the world's top 100. Former education minister Huang Jong-tsun, who proposed the plan, says that after the project was implemented, the number of papers published internationally by Taiwanese university professors rose dramatically, which is a sign of improvement. But he admits that it has led universities to overemphasize research, and signs of misapplication have emerged.

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