Cross-strait Higher Education
Chinese Students Set to Invade Kinmen
As Taiwan's political parties battle over allowing Chinese students onto the island, 23 universities look to outlying Kinmen County to sidestep the dispute.
Chinese Students Set to Invade KinmenBy Yueh-lin Ma, Wu Ting-feng. Yi-Shan Chen
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 453 )
Driving through a tunnel of trees on Kinmen Island, one eventually comes to a traffic circle with an old military bunker in the middle. The bunker was once covered with anti-aircraft machine guns, but today it is instead surrounded by golden trumpets flourishing in the heat of summer.
Without visiting Kinmen personally, it is easy to forget how green and clean the island truly is. "It was even cleaner in the past when soldiers cleaned the area," says the driver as he points to newly built two- and three-story homes along the road. "These may have been built to rent to students at National Quemoy University."
While Taiwan remains in the throes of an intense debate on how to close struggling universities suffering from low enrollment, Taiwan-held Kinmen County, which sits just kilometers away from China's southeastern coast, is singing a different tune. It aspires to be a "university island," with students pouring in as troop numbers decline.
On August 1, Taiwan's Ministry of Education formally approved for the first time in seven years a new public university – National Quemoy University (NQU), previously known as National Kinmen Institute of Technology. Kinmen did not attempt to hide the fact that its new students will come from China, even though controversial amendments to laws that would allow Chinese students into Taiwan have yet to be passed by the Legislature.
Kinmen County commissioner Li Wo-shih says confidently that his county will not be subject to Taiwan's overall quota for Chinese student enrollment and can apply for special dispensation. In the future, when Taiwanese universities look to set up branches in Kinmen to recruit Chinese students, they will also have to send top faculty to be competitive.
Professor Horng Chuen-chyi, the dean of Shu-te University's "Office of Both Straits Cooperation and Exchange" and the man in charge of promoting the "university island" plan for Kinmen County, says 23 universities have already expressed interest in setting up branches in Kinmen. "Now we have to choose them carefully," he says.
The front line of armed hostilities between Taiwan and China during the Cold War, Kinmen later became the testing ground for more open cross-strait exchanges in the early 2000s through the "Little Three Links" – a preliminary version of the "Three Links" (direct cross-strait trade, transportation and communications ties) limited to the offshore islands close to the Chinese mainland). Now Kinmen is ready to play a new pioneering role – as the beachhead of similar cross-strait links in the field of education.
But is a "university island" that relies on Chinese students viable? And will the Kinmen story epitomize Taiwan's higher education future?
Epitomizing Taiwan's Education Future?
University president Chin-Cheng Lee points to the new "National Quemoy University" sign made of black marble hanging outside the school's main building and says, "we spent all night on July 31st working on it and then put it up as soon as it was ready on August 1st." It was a moment Kinmen had been anticipating for 13 years.
During the ceremony celebrating the institution's new status as a university, Lee, along with Zhu Chongshi, president of Xiamen University, and Michael Ming-chiao Lai and Da-Hsuan Feng, president and senior vice president, respectively, of Taiwan-based National Cheng Kung University (NCKU), hailed the new university as "the Path of Success for Kinmen and Xiamen."
The slogan was something of a double entendre – the Chinese word for "success" – chenggong – was also the given name of Ming Dynasty loyalist Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga), who traveled from Xiamen in China to Kinmen and then on to Taiwan Island, where he booted out the Dutch in 1662.
"This path is the cultural heart of 60 million Minnan people. We're the only university in Taiwan that's the namesake of Zheng Chenggong, and that's why we want to go," said Feng, the main force behind cooperative efforts between his school and NQU. (Cheng Kung is a different English spelling of the same Chinese word, Chenggong or "success.")
The Minnan people, to whom Feng referred, originated in the area of Fujian Province south of the Min River (Minnan literally means "South of the Min"). Possessing their own linguistic and cultural heritage, they immigrated through Kinmen to Taiwan, and also to many parts of Southeast Asia.
Feng, an overseas Chinese from Singapore, is quite familiar with the Chinese culture of Southeast Asia. Among those attending the ceremony marking NQU's change in status were Malaysian tycoon Yeoh Tiong Lay and his family of nine, who returned to their ancestral home in Kinmen on a private plane for the event. Yeoh had previously donated NT$25 million to build a "Yeoh Tiong Lay garden" as a dormitory for teachers. On Aug. 1, he donated another US$1 million.
Other overseas Chinese with Kinmen roots who made donations that day were Indonesian plywood mogul Budiono Widodo (NT$5 million), and the director of Malaysian holding company and property developer BCB Berhad Tan Seng Leong, (NT$2 million). Wee Cho Yaw, the chairman of Singapore-based United Overseas Bank, and Y.C. Chang, the executive chairman of Singapore-based Pacific International Lines (PIL), both endowed three professorships, with each position paying US$100,000 per year.
Even Yeoh Tiong Lay's good friend Terry Gou, the chairman of Hon Hai Precision Industry who performed his military service in Kinmen, responded to the new university's appeal, donating US$1 million and pledging to set up the company's Innovation and Entrepreneurship Institute at the school.
"National Quemoy University will be like a platform that allows employees from Taiwanese, Chinese and Southeast Asian businesses to further their education in the university's Innovation and Entrepreneurship Institute. After students graduate, they can get an edge in being hired by the Hon Hai or Foxconn groups," Lee says.
Ho Jow-fei, director of the Department of Higher Education under Taiwan's Ministry of Education, touted the school's importance.
"This is a very special university in the cradle of Minnan culture. Many successful overseas Chinese leaders in Southeast Asia are from Kinmen," Ho said.
The contributions of the overseas Chinese businessmen and a NT$900 million fund amassed by the Kinmen County government have left NQU well financed, explaining in part why it was approved as a new university by the Ministry of Education.
"It has a cooperative competitive relationship with Xiamen University. If we did not upgrade its status, the overseas Chinese community's resources would have all gone to the other side of the Taiwan Strait," Ho says. At the same time, with the need to develop talent for its Western Taiwan Straits Economic Zone centered in Fujian Province across from Kinmen, China has already declared that it will enroll as many students as the university wants.
The university currently has a student body of 2,500 students, of whom 80 percent are Taiwanese. Lee's plan is to keep the quota for students from Taiwan at the current level of 2,000 while expanding the quota for Chinese students. He plans to recruit 200 Chinese nationals each year.
Getting students should not prove difficult, because the university's partnerships with Xiamen University, one of China's key institutions of higher learning, and NCKU, a top Taiwanese university, are expected to prove attractive to students from both countries.
At the same time, overseas Chinese have expressed interest in sponsoring classes set up by the university at independent Chinese middle schools in Indonesia, Brunei, and Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur and Johor. The university will be able to open classes abroad without spending a dime and create a pool of potential students in the future for NQU.
Benefiting from top faculty and curriculums, NQU students will not only have access to professors from NCKU and Xiamen University, but will also be able to spend one or two semesters at the other schools. Credits earned at one university will be recognized by the two others.
"National Cheng Kung University Hospital is currently discussing whether to set up a branch. The next step would be to establish a medical college," Feng says. NCKU also plans to launch classes in Kinmen in two of its strongest suits: materials science and engineering. "In the future, it's possible that NQU and Xiamen University will jointly recruit students and NQU and NCKU will run joint programs."
The gradually evolving cooperation model developed by the three universities is serving as a benchmark for many Taiwanese schools thinking of hooking up with Chinese counterparts.
The main promoter of the "university island" concept, Horng Chuen-chyi, believes that Kinmen's exemption from article 4 in draft legislation regulating Chinese students in Taiwan will help the outlying county achieve this ambition. The article caps the number of Chinese students allowed to study in Taiwan at 2,000 per year, and consequently, when the legislation is finally enacted and the limited number of undergraduates from China begins to arrive, they are far more likely to choose Taiwan's top-tier public universities, leaving behind private institutions, which are in desperate need of students.
The best solution for these schools is setting up branches in Taiwan's outlying islands, where instead of a hard quota, applications to open branches in Kinmen and admit Chinese students will be considered on a case-by-case basis. Ming Chuan University, for example, bought land in Kinmen 15 years ago, and it is now busy putting up an academic building, a library and a dormitory on the property, anticipating that amendments to existing laws that will pave the way for the students' arrival will soon be passed.
The school expects to recruit 300 Chinese students to study at its Kinmen annex next year. Fan Chung-yuan, director of Ming Chuan's Office of the Secretariat, says optimistically that finding students will not be a problem, because its three campuses around Taiwan constitute a major selling point.
Horng discloses that Ming Chuan has set a goal of eventually hosting a student body of 3,000 students at its Kinmen campus, while his own Shu-Te University is hoping for 2,000.
"You can say it's a United Front campaign or an attempt to win control of Taiwan through conciliation, but it could also be cooperation rather than taking advantage of Taiwan. At the very least, Taiwan's universities won't have any enrollment worries this decade," he says.
Horng's reason for optimism is that China recognizes academic credits and degrees from Taiwanese universities, but it does not grant degrees to students at Chinese universities that are not first- or second-tier institutions. These students and another 20 million high school students who are unable to enroll in a university because of a shortage of openings constitute an abundant market that could keep Taiwan's universities packed well into the future.
"But in relying on Chinese students to rescue universities, some Taiwanese schools seem to be too naive, I'm afraid," says Ho Jow-fei of the Department of Higher Education. Although the quota for Chinese students in Kinmen will be approved on a case-by-case basis, the Ministry of Education will still consider such factors as the specific nature of cross-strait ties, political realities, and practical needs in reviewing applications.
"The hopes of Taiwan's higher education system should not depend on Chinese students. Schools should still think about how to manage and reposition themselves," Ho urges, recognizing that ultimately, before relying on others, local schools should rely on themselves.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier