My Students Tell me There’s No Way Ahead
NTU Mentor Program Professor and former bank director relates how changes in the region’s financial sphere have affected the prospects of local students.
My Students Tell me There’s No Way AheadBy Yi-shan Chen, Ting-fang Hsiao
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 628 )
The Mentor Program at the Department of Finance of National Taiwan University (NTU) is a special mentor-mentee scheme that coaches finance department graduates for a career in the international financial industry. Over the past five years, Chen, former managing director of UBS Investment Bank’s Asia Pacific Region, and several dozen other financial industry experts have devoted their efforts to the mentor program, hoping to improve the visibility of Taiwanese talent in the fiercely competitive financial industry. After witnessing first-hand how students have changed over the years, Chen sums up her observations in an interview with CommonWealth Magazine.
The following are excerpts from the interview:
This year is my fifth year teaching at NTU, and it will probably be my last. Of all the NTU students I have taught, this year’s class is the most anxious I have encountered.
When we started five years ago, I and a dozen or so Taiwanese finance experts who held regional or senior executive positions in international finance founded the Mentor Program at NTU. The main reason we did so is because the recruitment mode of the international financial sector has changed over the years.
The Taiwanese are good team players; they are comparably trustworthy and have a good attitude. In the past, the Taiwanese executives in several large banks would reserve a quota for alumni from Taiwan.
In recent years, too many people returned from abroad, hoping to enter the Hong Kong financial circle. China, in particular, has many people who graduated from the world’s top 50 universities. Before, human resources in banks had to screen 500 CVs, but now they need to read more than 1,000, so they tend to hand these tasks to headhunting firms. The requirements they give the headhunters is that candidates must have graduated from a university in the global or regional top 50. Since NTU is no longer among the top 50, graduates cannot even get past the first hurdle.
Five years ago, the Mentor Program began to take the students to Hong Kong. We used our interpersonal networks to directly approach the banks, pressuring the human resources departments in these financial institutions to meet with our graduates. Now, about 10 percent of Mentor Program graduates work in the financial sector in Hong Kong. They were all noticed and granted an interview opportunity that way.
To be honest, this approach is somewhat rude, but we effectively didn’t have an alternative. Yet this model has likely reached its limits. The alumni in Hong Kong banks are being prevented by their human resources supervisors from receiving us. Human resources believes that that method encourages everyone to cultivate their own little circle. They have been warned that no one is allowed to look after the alumni from their own alma mater.
On each recruitment boot camp that we hold before taking the students to Hong Kong every year, I feel like dying. It is very exhausting, and I didn’t plan to take them this year. But last October, a dozen or so students from the graduating class came to my home to see me. They said, “Professor, we will really be very diligent; we are even willing to put up with being beaten up.” These are truly the most conscientious students I have ever taught.
Later on, I asked them, “Why did you come to me?” And the students responded, “Professor, we really don’t see any way forward.”
Full-time Jobs Pay Like Internships
NTU students are worried because the situation for NTU students today is no longer the same as it was in my era. I was granted a scholarship for students from low-income families from childhood on and made it into the law school of NTU. In my generation, the children of many middle- or higher-ranking white-collar professionals still went to university in Taiwan. But virtually all of the children of families that were economically better off than mine studied at universities abroad, and most of them remained there after graduation.
By my preliminary estimate, Singapore, Hong Kong and China alone can snatch away 1,300 students. NTU has 3,600 freshmen per year and a total of around 16,000 undergraduate students.
Do Taiwan’s best universities still get the truly most outstanding students?
On the education front, we see that Taiwanese students do not have confidence in higher education. The situation is even more pronounced in graduate schools.
As far as I understand, if undergraduates want to directly move on to graduate school, their applications are generally all approved. The quality of graduate school students is quite varied. Many people go on to graduate school or retain their student status (by putting off graduation) to make themselves look more valuable, to help their search for a full-time job.
As long as you are a student, you can work as an intern; you can use internships to look for a job. [They think] if you drag out making a decision to wait for a better chance they might eventually come across a good job. However, if you are not a student, you cannot intern, but you also won’t necessarily find a full-time job.
I often scold them for putting off graduation and using national resources to go to graduate school if they do not really want to study; this amounts to wasting social resources. But the students retort: “Professor, you can’t tell us off like that. We make so little money; many companies pay people who have just graduated salaries that are more or less the same as what they pay interns.”
The Advantages of Taiwanese Talent
Taiwan’s enterprises are not socially responsible because the major shareholders who are in charge of running many important Taiwanese companies have used their shares as collateral to borrow money. They don’t care about people at all.
In Taiwan these big bosses still ride roughshod over others. They seem to be worth one billion but have moved 500 million overseas, which means the employees serve as slaves for hollow bosses.
The bosses don’t have any feelings for the workers, the land or the company.
The Taiwanese actually do have a competitive edge in all of Asia. Due to the rise of China, foreigners want to do business with China. In comparison to the Chinese, the Taiwanese have an independent perspective, their workplace literacy is good, they are responsible and were brought up in a culture with Chinese heritage, which gives them a relative advantage.
I often tell my students that, no matter whether you like it or not, the young generation probably needs to understand mainland China even more than earlier generations. As a student, your job is to study. In addition to understanding your own place of birth and the region where you live…you still need to understand China. Amid international competition, the biggest advantage of the Taiwanese is the Chinese language, the biggest advantage is their “Chinese culture gene”.
Many parents also need to change their notions. When Taiwanese go to Beijing, they won’t become Communists. It would be such a pity if the Taiwanese were not able to bring into play their strengths regarding China.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz