Desperately Seeking Students
Taiwan's Professors Turn Marketers
Within two decades more than one third of Taiwan's universities may have to close down for want of students. All of a sudden, university presidents and professors alike are being forced to peddle their services.
Taiwan's Professors Turn MarketersBy Nana Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 507 )
Senior high school students are brooding over the test papers for their Department Required Test, a university entrance exam for specific subjects. Inside the examination venue several university professors are making the rounds among the waiting parents who sit in the back fanning themselves.
"Hello. This is a brochure about our department, you might want to consider selecting our school…," they make their sales pitch. While some parents politely listen, others openly show their annoyance, making the cold-shouldered professors retreat quickly with an embarrassed look on their faces.
Lai Cheng-po, a business management assistant professor at Nanhua University in Jiayi County, regrets his decision of eight years ago to leave the insurance industry and devote himself to the apparently more worthwhile profession of teaching. When selling insurance he thought that academia would offer a more enjoyable work environment and that teaching Taiwan's next generation was a meaningful endeavor.
Lai did not expect to get his old job back in disguise: a few years into his teaching job he found himself touring senior high schools in central and southern Taiwan, trying to sell his university and handing out PR brochures just like an insurance agent.
Lai describes what encompasses such sales pitches: praising the excellence of one's school to the skies in front of uninterested, noisily chatting high-schoolers, humbly asking homeroom teachers to drop a few positive remarks about the university, and coping with under-the-table dealings practiced at some private senior high schools.
As schools at all levels fight for their survival in a tighter market, the hunt for students is on everywhere. Universities squander money on scholarships to senior high schools, hoping that the schools will reciprocate by helping them to recruit students. Senior high school teachers, for their part, teach junior high school students in cram courses to boost student recruitment at their own school. Junior high schools are already following suit by fishing for students at elementary schools.
"The axis of education has become slanted," observes Chen Pao-yuan, also an assistant professor at Nanhua University. "The situation is getting more and more dramatic as universities tie up with senior high schools, senior high schools tie up with junior high schools and junior high schools tie up with elementary schools."
Given that a further demographics-related drop in students is forecasted for the year 2016, middle- and lower-ranked universities are focusing all their efforts on student enrollment rather than on teaching and research, often turning teachers into sales personnel in the process.
Regardless of rank, faculty and administrators alike are forced to put up a brave front and ingratiate themselves with officials and teachers at senior high schools.
In mid-September Fo Guang University president Yang Chao-hsiang, a former education minister, went to Taipei to personally deliver stationery and other small gifts to St. Bonaventure Girls' Senior High School in Neihu District. Yang calls this a neighborly visit, but in fact this neighbor is located 55 kilometers away from the Fo Guang University campus in rural Yilan County.
Professors and department chairs at many universities are now forced to form teams to promote their schools at senior high schools. They hold private tutoring classes for the students, coach them for free for the General English Proficiency Test, practice essay writing with them for the Department Required Test, and even train them in simulated university admission interviews.
They no longer visit just a dozen senior high schools in their vicinity, but might expand their student recruitment drive to as many as 100 senior high schools.
Enrollment First, Teaching and Research Second
For a number of universities that are already on the brink of closure, student recruitment is the foremost task.
"Teaching and research can't compete with student recruitment in terms of importance," notes Simon Chang, assistant professor at Kainan University in Taoyuan County. Chang once spent his summer break touring all of northern Taiwan.
Former education minister Wu Ching-ji has put it quite bluntly, stating that a university needs at least 6,000 students to be feasible. But Education Ministry statistics show that some 30 out of Taiwan's 163 colleges and universities do not even reach the 6,000 student threshold. Among the private colleges and universities in particular, there are schools that do not even have 100 students enrolled.
Nonetheless, all of the under-enrolled schools keep fighting. So far not a single one has closed its doors and voluntarily pulled out of the higher education market.
Lai Ting-ming, head of the Association of Private Universities and Colleges and president of Shih Hsin University, knows why they resist closure: They want to hold on to their land. When a school closes, the land it occupies must be returned to the state. The boards of private schools are therefore much more inclined to restructure and sell a school than to pull out of the education market and cede the land to the government.
To escape the future wave of school mergers and closures, universities that accept students with medium and lower college entrance examination scores are not only trying to attract Taiwanese students, but are also targeting international students. Over the past five years, enrolment of international students has grown by 109 percent.
For private colleges and universities, China is a popular hunting ground. For more than a decade Taiwan's old private universities such as Ming Chuan, Shih Hsin, Feng Chia and Fu Jen have been forming alliances with universities across the Taiwan Strait. Shih Hsin University, for example, has signed sister school relationships with more than 50 schools in China and accepts more than 400 Chinese exchange students per year for short-term programs.
Are 64 Universities Going to Close?
Presently, China allows students from six coastal provinces to study in Taiwan. But Taiwan's private universities are cultivating ties not only with China's top-tier universities, but also with its second- and third-tier, non-provincial-level universities. Some go as far as to look for prospective students at senior high schools along the Chinese coast.
However, according to the Ministry of Education regulation, the number of students from China must not exceed 1 percent of the total number of students nationwide or 2,000 students. For under-enrolled colleges and universities, that's just a drop in the ocean.
Feng Chia University spokesman Tang Kuo-hao believes that the government will eventually relax these restrictions, once universities reach a point of existential crisis.
A number of universities are counting on a higher influx of Chinese students in the future. Like the Taiwanese companies that secretly invested in China via third territories before direct investment was allowed, these universities are quietly establishing a presence in China.
"The Legislative Yuan once estimated that 64 universities will have to close," notes Lai. "Even if they survive the drop in students in 2016, there will be a second 'baby bust' generation entering universities in 2028, which will affect one third of all universities. If first departments are closed and then schools are merged, more than 10,000 teachers will face unemployment," Lai predicts.
More than 10,000 university faculty without a job, wouldn't that be an enormous waste of human talent? What would be the implications for society at large?
It is plainly obvious that the government is not yet prepared to tackle these problems.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz