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Taiwan's Higher Education

Out of Sync with the Real World


As Taiwan's students vie for spots in the best universities and technical schools scramble to advance in status, the focus of academia is drifting away from practical knowledge. Why are these institutions so out of step with the needs of society?



Out of Sync with the Real World

By Ming-Ling Hsieh
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 410 )

A gynecologist who has been practicing medicine for more than 40 years is candidly warning friends that they better not get sick, because of what he is seeing in medical colleges today. Fewer students are willing to stand next to operating tables to learn their trade, and fewer professors seem willing to perform surgery.

Professors of medicine are not the only ones whose practical skills have diminished. Several conventional industries, such as tool- and mold-making, also face shortages of professionally qualified technicians.

This lack of practical skills reflects the gradual disappearance of specialized education in Taiwan.

Growing Gap between Academia and Industry

A number of departments in fields where hands-on training is essential no longer have the ability to produce individuals with practical skills and have been unable to attract new students.

Taiwanese society's prevalent mindset favoring research over practical knowledge and universities over vocational colleges has produced the unsalutary effect of a specialized division of labor that is unfocused and out of kilter.

"Society needs different skills, but if we continue on this course, the clear differentiation of functions in Taiwanese society will be destroyed," says a worried Manfred Wang, associate vice president of electronics manufacturer Qisda Corporation and the chief design officer of the company's Creative Design Center. A diversity of specialized talent is still required to support Taiwan's social structure, he contends.

The diminishing importance of technical and vocational education over the past 20 years is the main factor behind the collapse of specialization in Taiwan.

Technical colleges were once renowned for graduating individuals equipped with practical skills who could solve real problems. When Taiwan began to industrialize, these graduates were the pioneers who created a solid foundation for the country's economy.

Chen Ching Kao, the principal of Taipei Municipal Daan Vocational Industrial High School, observes that the founders of several of Taiwan's small- and medium-sized enterprises were products of technical or vocational institutions, including Hon Hai Precision Group chairman Terry Gou, Pegatron Corporation chairman T.H. Tung, and most of the founders of smartphone maker HTC.

Taiwan's vocational education system hit its peak in the 1980s. At the time, for every three students enrolled in high schools, there were seven students studying at vocational high schools, but the culture fostered by these technical and vocational schools and their many advantages have rapidly waned over the past decade.

The decline can be traced back to 1996 when vocational schools were allowed to upgrade in status to become technical colleges or even science and technology universities.

Since then, the number of vocational schools in Taiwan has declined precipitously, from 53 to 15. At the same time, the number of technical colleges has nearly doubled, from 20 to 38, and the number of science and technical universities has boomed, growing nearly seven-fold from six to forty.

With everybody desperate to climb higher in the academic world, Taiwan's new technical colleges and universities now outnumber regular universities, yet these institutions suffer as a "disadvantaged majority" when it comes to resources.

Drowning in a Flood of Ladder-climbing

As more technical and vocational schools elevated their academic classifications, this quantitative change altered the very nature of these institutions. From teaching qualifications to curriculums, these once-specialized schools became more homogenized with the standard educational track.

One of the key factors behind the trend was a requirement imposed on the faculties of schools seeking to upgrade their status. The number of professors they had on their staffs was a fundamental criterion for having their applications approved. If a vocational school wanted to elevate itself to technical college status, teachers with a rank of associate professor or higher needed to comprise at least 21 percent of the institution's total faculty members (defined as lecturers or above). That ratio needed to rise to 22 percent a year after the change took place and to 25 percent after another three years. 

Ling Tung University president Michael J.K. Chen says the process compelled many technical colleges looking to elevate their status to compete for the services of professors with PhDs, even if the candidates did not meet the schools' needs for specialists with practical skills. 

Institutions injected professors with PhDs on their resumes into the technical and vocational education system in place of qualified teachers who had practical experience, with the result that curriculums were no longer able to meet the demands of industry.

Kuang-Yuh Huang, now a professor in the Mechanical Design Group of National Taiwan University's Department of Mechanical Engineering, has seen the unwelcome transition first-hand. Huang recalls that when he was an associate professor 20 years ago at National Taiwan Institute of Technology (now known as National Taiwan University of Science and Technology), the school's students had all gained experience at factories and wanted a curriculum that offered practical skills they could use on the job. Professors could not simply show up for class unprepared and expect to get away with it.

"Now, there is almost no differentiation left," Huang says. "The skills of teachers in many technical and vocational schools are nearly identical to those of instructors in regular universities."

Aside from changes in the composition of professors, the curriculums in technical and vocational schools are also growing closer to those found at regular academic institutions at the expense of practical training. The situation is particularly obvious at vocational high schools.

Driving these adjustments in academic goals and curriculums has been the single-minded pursuit of academic advancement among Taiwan's current student population. Technical and vocational schools now place a higher priority on preparing their students for pursuing a higher degree than on training them in mastering a marketable technical skill. 

After Education Minister Cheng Jei-cheng assumed his post in May, he solicited opinions on the country's education system from people in many walks of life. Several of those offering advice concluded that "technical and vocational education will soon be submerged."

The existing trend away from practical education already bodes poorly for the skills of Taipei's future generation, but equally alarming is that regular universities are also moving closer to becoming ivory towers that have increasingly less contact with Taiwan's manufacturing and service sectors.

One of the main measuring sticks used to evaluate Taiwanese schools is how many PhDs are on their faculties, while teachers' promotions are based on how many scholarly papers they publish. This has caused schools to emphasize research and to make short shrift of practical skills and teaching.

Practical Experience Trumped by Academic Credentials

Though many people agreed that as society changed, technical and vocational schools needed to elevate their statuses to meet new challenges, the transformation occurred too rapidly, resulting in a lack of management control and a narrowing of the gap between technical and regular education. At the same time, as higher education institutions put greater emphasis on research and less on practical skills, practical experience was not valued on a par with academic credentials.

In an era where the two do not carry equal weight, students can only face the challenge with a more energetic attitude.

The chairman of 104 Job Bank Corp. Rocky Yang reminds students to get practical training in a real job as quickly as possible to gain an understanding of the ruthlessness and realism in the workplace and build up their motivation to learn and strengthen themselves in areas in which they have weaknesses.

The education system even more urgently needs to make adjustments and rebuild social values that welcome and enable people to distinguish themselves in any field. The technical and vocational education system, from funding and teacher recruitment to professional certification, should be overhauled and the dignity of professional specialization restored.

Some steps have been made in this direction. In recent years, the Ministry of Education has adjusted its guidelines to make teachers eligible for promotion based on filing technical reports rather than publishing papers, although the number of individuals applying for this option has so far remained low. Also, the new administration of President Ma Ying-jeou and Vice President Vincent Siew has pledged to increase funding for vocational education.

Only through an all-encompassing system emphasizing professional certification and practical training, however, will Taiwan be able to reinstill the "hands-on" element in technical and vocational training.

Mon-Chi Lio, an associate professor in National Sun Yat-sen University's Department of Political Economy, notes that Japan puts a priority on specialization and the division of labor and has a comprehensive vocational school and professional certification system. This long-standing certification system has given those with professional credentials a sense of recognition and professional authority.

"But we (in Taiwan) do not have a certification system that is tailored to the education system," Lio says, an indication that the time has come for the increasingly blurred boundaries between vocational and regular universities to undergo a critical review.

Finding Their Own Identities

In an era of indistinct academic values, each institution must urgently address the need to position itself and identify its own special characteristics. Rungtai Lin, former principal of Mingchi Institute of Technology and now the dean of National Taiwan University of Arts' College of Design, observes that as universities find it necessary to focus on practical application, and technical schools increasingly resemble institutions of higher learning, the pivotal issue is no longer a differentiation between universities and technical schools, but rather establishing a distinct position and finding ways to link up with society.

The Ministry of Education has provided incentives in recent years to help schools differentiate themselves. One plan for example, targeted NT$50 billion over five years for research-oriented universities, while a "Teaching Excellence Project" was set up for vocational schools and universities. Over the past three years, a special budget of NT$5 billion per year has funded the Teaching Excellence Project, but the program's funding this year has been included as part of the regular education budget and is expected to remain steady at NT$3.7 billion per year in the future.

Once a uniform society obsessed with academic advancement, Taiwan now faces the need to adjust its mindset and its systems to accept and respect diversity. Only then can specialized education avoid extinction and the education system move toward enabling individuals to distinguish themselves in all fields of endeavor.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier

Chinese Version: 學歷與實作力脫鉤