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Greater China Education

The Recruitment War Begins


The Recruitment War Begins


Chinese diplomas are not yet recognized in Taiwan, but that hasn't stopped Chinese schools from aggressively recruiting Taiwan's best students. What are the challenges posed by cross-strait education links?



The Recruitment War Begins

By Sherry Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 432 )

Strolling around the campus of Peking University, not a minute goes by without seeing a foreign face. Last year, more than 1,000 overseas students were studying for a degree there – 56 percent from Korea, 8 percent from Japan, 9 percent from the United States and 9 percent from Europe.

Asia, and especially China, has become a prime education destination for students around the globe aged 18 to 24. Though politics have hindered cross-Taiwan Strait educational exchanges, the number of Taiwanese students going to China for a college education has grown rapidly.

Between 1985 and 2000, only 3,759 Taiwanese studied in China. In the seven years that followed, that number rose to more than 11,000, with half studying Chinese medicine. Aside from those in China studying for formal degrees, another 10,000 university students have gone there for short-term exchange programs in the past five years.

There are currently 233 Taiwanese students studying at Peking University alone, six times the number that attended the prestigious institution in Beijing's Haidian District five years ago.

This phenomenon, part of the overall trend toward the convergence of the Greater China education market, has gradually come to influence Taiwan's nearly 3 million high school, university and graduate students.

Cross-strait Connection

As relations between Taiwan and China have thawed and new policy incentives put in place, what originally were parallel education systems in Taiwan, China and Hong Kong are now poised for a new era of interconnection.

Over the past 20 years, when Taiwanese have gone to China to study, they have had to go through a recruitment channel for students from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan that was separate from China's higher education system.

At a cross-strait education forum at Changsha, Hunan Province in July, however, China's vice minister of education Yang Guiren announced on the forum's sidelines that China's universities would use Taiwan's scholastic aptitude tests as the basis for admitting Taiwanese students.

Attending the forum in a private capacity, Taiwan's then deputy education minister Lu Mu-lin, was surprised by China's assertive gambit and its refraining from asking for reciprocal treatment. Adhering to regulations in Taiwan's University Act and the Statute Governing the Relations between the Peoples of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area, Taiwan has yet to recognize Chinese diplomas or allow Chinese students to study in Taiwan.

Despite these restrictions, however, a recruitment battle targeted at young elites has clearly broken out across the Taiwan Strait.

At a press conference in mid-September in Beijing, China's education minister Zhou Ji said the size of his country's university system had surpassed that of Russia, India, and the United States to become the world's largest, with 20.2 million students, 4.5 times more than in 1998. He also indicated that China would pursue very active cooperation with Taiwan's universities.

And China is not alone in going after Taiwanese students. Hong Kong universities have begun to directly recruit students in Taiwan.

At the beginning of the new semester in September, Taiwanese students were enrolled in City University of Hong Kong for the first time. All seven of the new students graduated from top Taiwanese high schools – three from Taipei Municipal First Girls' Senior High School, three from National Taichung First Senior High School, and one from Taipei Municipal Jianguo High School. The students could all have gone to Taiwan's prestigious National Taiwan University but chose Hong Kong instead.

Part of the reason for the trend is that universities in China and Hong Kong have opened their doors and adopted policies to lure Taiwanese students.

Documents exchanged between Shanghai-based Fudan University and China's Ministry of Education, for example, clearly indicate that high school students to be admitted to Fudan in the future must have top scholastic aptitude test scores and outstanding grades. Based on this standard, around 17,000 Taiwanese students qualified as elite last year, and the top 12 percent will be potential recruitment targets for the Shanghai university.

Because of this new recruitment battle among universities in Greater China, the number of higher education options open to today's Taiwanese students has exploded.

23% of Parents Back China Education

Lai Yu-rou, a 22-year-old graduate student in finance, spent over NT$20,000 to spend two months this summer as an intern in the Shanghai branch of China-based Bank of Communications. Her internship certificate can be seen in her dorm room.

Lai is unlike many of the first wave of Taiwanese students in China, whose parents own or work for Taiwanese enterprises there. Lai's parents are simply teachers who encouraged her to get experience in China. Although she appreciates Taiwan's free and diverse environment, she has seemingly come to accept the nomadic fate of her generation.

"If there are no good opportunities in Taiwan, I could go to Beijing and Shanghai in the future," she acknowledges.

A Ministry of Education survey conducted at the end of last year on the willingness of Taiwanese students and their families to enroll in schools in China found that 22.8 percent of parents were considering sending their children there to study. Of those, 47 percent said they would do so regardless of whether Taiwan's government recognizes Chinese diplomas.

At the same time, most parents still cannot fathom their children studying at a Chinese university, with 70 percent concerned about public order, 59 percent worried about their children getting acclimated to life there, and 38 percent unable to foot the financial bill.

Still, one university president who is an Academia Sinica academician says, "For 23 percent of parents to consider the option without China aggressively promoting the idea is shocking."

A weak economy in Taiwan may be fueling parents' thinking. The high 13 percent unemployment rate in the 20-29 age bracket in Taiwan has led parents and students to more pragmatically and carefully examine university brands to see which can help with networking and finding that first job.

But does gaining experience in China really help one's career development?

Hybrid Human Resources

The answer may be yes. The number of foreign enterprises in China, for instance, has grown from 420,000 in 2002 to 700,000 today, and they all need talented people who understand China.

Early this decade, General Motors, HP, Siemens and other leading global companies launched a university cooperation plan called "Partners for the Advancement of Collaborative Engineering Education," or "PACE" for short, to work with academic institutions in developing the automotive product life cycle management team of the future. Its partner institutions were originally limited to 19 universities in North America, but the group has now begun to cooperate with top Chinese universities and hire automotive and industrial talent in China directly out of college. 

Even Taiwanese enterprises have focused on China's market, increasing their investment in Chinese universities.

As more companies develop a foothold in China and redefine themselves as "cross-strait enterprises," they are also re-evaluating their talent needs.

One such company is the online shopping website PayEasy, a subsidiary of Taishin Financial Holding Co. that has expanded abroad this year and is planning to set up branches in Shanghai and Beijing next year.

"We are still a Taiwanese company, but starting next year, we will define ourselves as a cross-strait company. In the future, we will definitely use people with cross-strait, and especially China, experience," says PayEasy general manager Bill Lin.

Lin himself has two school-age daughters, in ninth and sixth grade, respectively, and because of his belief that exposure to China could be beneficial to their future, he has purposefully taken them traveling in China over their summer and winter breaks for the past two years.

"I will encourage my daughters to stay in Taiwan until they graduate from high school, attend college in China, get a graduate degree in the United States, and then return to Asia, and especially China, to develop," Lin says.

"Taiwan's small island-market has the benefit of being sophisticated, but China is a seductive high-risk, high-reward market. If you stand along the Huangpu River or on a sidewalk on Nanjing Road in Shanghai and watch, you see the new China, surging with new opportunities and new challenges."

This changing labor market has affected young people's education plans and their course of study.

The Battle of Education Brands

The future brand battle in Greater China will be about helping students build connections. New enrollees will be looking to study across disciplines and borders, earn degrees offered jointly by two or three different schools, and amass international experience.

This concept is an intrinsic part of the thinking of Wang Zhihua, vice director of Tsinghua University's Institute of Microelectronics. The laboratory he currently leads holds regular workshops with the prestigious Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). This year, with the support of Taiwan-based Mediatek Inc. chairman Tsai Ming-kai, it is also working with elite Taiwanese students.

Wang's thinking is that in 20 years when these students are in their 40s, they could form a group of friends who hold leadership positions in economic and technical fields in Asia.

These trends all point to an inescapable conclusion. Universities around the world have entered a make-or-break battle – a brand war for funding, resources and interdisciplinary and international alliances.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier