Taiwan Wants More Foreigners in its Universities. Is a Taiwan College Degree Worth It?

Taiwan really wants foreigners to come get a Taiwan college degree.

“The world’s universities are competing fiercely to attract the best students. [We are] aiming to attract 150,000 students by 2020, that will account for 10% of the total college and university student population.” — past president Ma Jing-Yeou

First, the good news. Internationalizing Taiwan universities is an initiative led by the very top, and there’s already 110,000 international students in Taiwan.

Courtesy: Flickr

The education system is strong by most standards, especially on primary and secondary levels. The literacy rate is 98.7%. For college, Taiwan is the 5th most affordable country to study (the United States is the most expensive). Schools look a little more like modern institutions now. This is Koo Chen-Fu Memorial Library at National Taiwan University (台大), by Toyo Ito.

But the trouble with recruiting foreign students is supporting local students is still a big challenge. Nearly 81% of Taiwanese say the high unemployment rate amongst new graduates is a serious problem. If Taiwan colleges can’t help Taiwanese students, then what about the foreign students?

Now you’re getting it.

College Graduates are Under-Served

Higher education everywhere has shortfalls. Taiwan has other issues. Some that were worse in the past, many of which are similar to the U.S.

Regarding foreign students from developing countries, the Taiwanese system usually tops their own. Many of the best universities in Taiwan may not be the most recognized, but manage to get ranked among the world’s top research institutions. Taiwan’s economy is one way this plays out.

But the setup of Taiwan’s educational system creates under-served college graduates. This includes locals, and foreigners, who easily fall into this category because they also have language and culture to contend with. Many of these issues predictably get swept under rugs (and out of brochures) because people want to give a good impression. Taiwan is recruiting students!

Unfortunately, schools may not be preparing (international students) to be competitive in the global marketplace.

Anyone considering a Taiwan college degree should realize it’s a non-traditional track that requires extra persistence. If you’re a foreigner looking at college in Taiwan, understanding the system might help you get more from it.

A Numbers Problem in Taiwan Higher Education

Taiwan has a ton of college graduates, and a lot of them are engineers. The 30% becoming engineers feels higher at one of the 12 universities (out of 160) with an engineering program. HOLD UP. Taiwan has 160 universities? And how did the U.S. get pulled into this?

Imagine 160 universities in New Jersey and you get the idea.

There used to be very few universities in Taiwan. Then, Nobel Prize Winner Yuan T. Lee returned a national hero and talked about how universities are everywhere in America. So all the junior colleges were upgraded to universities. Now Taiwan has so many university graduates! #NailedIt

“When everyone’s super, no one will be.” — Syndrome, not a Nobel Prize Winner

Just having a Taiwan college degree no longer makes students super. In some ways, Taiwan has more complex issues than the U.S. Imagine the effect of 160 universities in the state of New Jersey and you get the idea.

Over a period of several years, universities and university students have gradually become hot potatoes. Newly graduated university students cannot find a job, and even when private universities want to donate their institutions to the state, the state does not want them…

There are many, many good colleges in Taiwan, and I personally know many talented people who graduated from schools that aren’t considered the very best. There just aren’t 160 of them. Taiwan is now planning to close or merge 1/3 of these schools between 2015–2025. Joining forces is a good move for Taiwan. Going to a school that’s moving in the right direction is a good decision.

… At the beginning of this year, Leader University ignited a potential trend toward disappearing universities, a trend 1 million college and university students and their families must confront. — CommonWealth magazine, vol. 444

Quality is Job No. ??

More students and universities means more choices. But competition doesn’t always improve educational quality in Taiwan.

Many universities today are providing education with more of an eye toward profit than quality. The implications for educational quality and equity of opportunities tend to be less emphasized in the era of market-driven environments (Olssen, 2002; Mok & Welch, 2003)

Because the system is trying to serve as many students as possible, there are gaps. Lowering the university standard means students aren’t as ready — coming in or going out. From the same CommonWealth magazine article:

Another law department professor said he originally wanted to emulate a former teacher of his at National Taiwan University and fail about one-third of his students to force them to work hard. The school, however, blocked the initiative because of the Ministry of Education’s quota system for total enrollment. If too many students are flunked, then a bigger share of the fixed student body will be repeat students, and unlike new students who pay full tuition, repeat students only pay a fee based on credit hours.

Here’s an American aphorism about how this affects the top schools. American southerners have a saying about being chased by a bear.

You don’t have to outrun the bear. You just have to outrun the guy next to you.

Since most schools have lower standards, top schools now don’t have to push so hard. Their competitive set now includes a lot of lesser ranked schools.

Professors and Students Both Lose

More students means educators have their hands full. In general, schools with more academic freedom face a common dilemma of uneven quality. Freedom helps recruit top professors, however professors are usually dedicated to research, not teaching — and that’s the university’s focus, as well.

Here’s what happens.

  • Some professors work even harder at teaching
  • Some teach to an acceptable standard
  • Others say as long as you learned something, it’s good enough

That’s a low bar. I learn something from a Uber driver every time I ride. It’s no surprise Professor YouTube is becoming a more important component of modern education.

Finally, for the international students. These students already come in with a more global perspective.

Taking in more foreign students could help globalize Taiwan education, but instead, it’s the other way around.

Unfortunately, lackluster teaching combined with a smaller view of the world means the school may not be preparing them to be competitive in the global marketplace. According to a mid-2018 poll by the Professor Huang Kun-Huei Education Foundation:

  • 78.3% University students might not be learning enough skills to help them compete internationally
  • 77.7% Worried about the gap between skills and industry needs
  • 76.5% of Taiwanese worry the quality of higher education is worsening

All this is true in many places, but it’s exacerbated by the rapid growth in universities, and a rush for international students. Again, it’s a good thing Taiwan is the 5th most affordable country to study.

Good Enough is Not Good Enough, or Global Enough

A sign at the Taipei Zoo. Not false, but wrong, and a case of what the local culture of “good enough” will get you. (Courtesy: Taiwan Chinglish)

Some Taiwanese say the “credential” (Taiwan college degree) is good enough. The general mindset of those recruiting foreign students goes something like, Taiwan is a great country and attending a great university in a great country will help you achieve your goals in Asia, and so forth.

Maybe it’s good enough for the generation without 160 universities. Not today. This is the same kind of message talked up by lower-tier schools in the West. A school could get away with this before the number of universities got out of hand, and Taiwan is slowly adjusting to reality.

Sub-par bachelors degrees means people plug up the graduate ranks to stand out, which leads to the creation of sub-par masters degrees.

Even at the nation’s top universities, there is uncertainty. This is an example of the generation gap, according to Jane, a freshman at National Taiwan University, as told to The News Lens. “(She) felt that attending the best university in Taiwan did not guarantee her a bright future like she had been told.”

It’s not because the universities don’t care about quality, but because being on top of Taiwan — a country with strong nationalism — is the best place to be… in Taiwan. For almost all Taiwanese, this is the competitive set that matters. But if one is on top of Taiwan, are they on top of the world? Not quite.

Why The Rush to Attract International Students?

“At National Taiwan University, some students said they wanted to contribute to Taiwan’s development and would never work in China. Others were aiming for careers in the United States. But many said their ambitions lay on the mainland: culturally and linguistically more accessible than the West, and more achievable... A poll conducted in March found that nearly 9 in 10 Taiwanese workers have worked abroad or are willing to do so.” — ‘Taiwan battles a brain drain as China aims to woo young talent,’ Washington Post

Low birth-rate (the lowest fertiliy rate in the world) and brain drain. The growing deficit is one of the reasons Taiwan wants foreign students. Put simply, there aren’t enough local students to fill seats or keep Taiwan’s social systems going, so this is one way to deal with the problem.

Many young Taiwanese work hard to improve their English. The irony is the more English they, the more likely they might be to leave the country. 6,000 college graduates go to the U.S. for graduate studies every year.

Many of them go abroad to get a more complete look at the world. Bigger markets are another draw. Those that don’t learn English, may go to China.

Also, follow the money. The Ministry of Education began offering universities a funding package to create programs for international students. But then there was a rush that led to a lot of lousy international programs.

“We should recognize that the real crisis in higher education is not being able to pursue excellence, rather than a lack of students.” —Professor Chia-Ming Hsueh, National Cheng Kung University

Why are so many of them below expectations? One reason is cascading mediocrity in the system. Sub-par bachelors degrees means people plug up the graduate ranks to stand out, which leads to the creation of sub-par masters degrees. That’s the “educational industry” in Taiwan. Students relying on English-taught classes to graduate, also need to factor in instructors’ ability to not just deliver a lecture, but teach in English.

  • There are far fewer classes available in English, then there is in Chinese. At the top universities, less than 10% of courses are taught in English, according to the Taiwanese government.
  • Even in the English courses, an instructor is really only able to teach what they can communicate. There are stories of professors switching an English-taught course to Chinese, once learning their class is full of Chinese-speaking students.
  • Some university resources, like computer software, may only be available in Chinese. Or to certain departments, instead of the entire campus.

The existence of an international program doesn’t mean it’s one that’s worth its while. Any college degree is only worth what a student gets from it. But perhaps not enough is being done to support the goals of international students.

In many Taiwan classrooms, providing a global outlook may just involve using a Western textbook, instead of Chinese. To Taiwanese, this is global.

This quote by an American-Born Taiwanese who came for her bachelor’s degree is more than a little damning.

“Many of these schools (not even yet fit to give Taiwanese students a proper education) are scrambling to “globalize” their student body & are drooling for foreign students like a fat boy and cake–has resulted in some horrible, horrible English-language programs. Out of all my exchange-student friends, I’ve never heard a single one that was satisfied with the quality of their exchange programs; citing crappy classrooms, incomprehensible teachers (that can barely speak English) and a general lack of a stimulating classroom environment.” — Stephanie Hsu, TheThousandthGirl.com

In short, Taiwanese universities have the same issues other universities have, a significant layer of serious domestic issues, and then there’s the matter of international students — which stacks on top of that.

Addressing the Criticism

Stephanie’s not wrong. These are lesser, but still major issues for better funded “brand name” schools in Taiwan. For example, National Taiwan University likes to hire professors with PhDs from English-speaking countries, and the school has enough money to make itself look good. For the most part.

The English ability of international students and professors is a moving target.

There’s also a problem of academic resources. An example of a problem that students at struggling institutions may face: The library doesn’t have certain journals. Then one discovers their school canceled its digital access plan. So they may need to have friends at other universities who can help.

For niche areas, the brand isn’t so important, the school should be notable in its field. Still…“Things are changing.” Or, “getting better.” As soon as one hears this, they know the school is not quite where it ought to be.

Crappy classrooms? VIPs don’t see or sit in the classrooms that students use — many of which have outdated equipment and facilities. In order for Taiwan to be such an affordable country to study, some cuts had to be made and these are some of the more visible examples.

“Dell Optiplex GX1/GX110, the official school computer of the late 90s and early 2000s.” — Reddit

“Half the time the laptop would not work properly when it was connected with the projector, because the screens won’t appear on both the projector and laptop and no matter what we did, nothing ever worked… My classroom has technology so old, that it is probably haunted at this stage and my university is considered a good university in Taiwan. Yet, the facilities in classrooms are absolutely atrocious.” — University in Taiwan: Pros and Cons from a Master’s Degree Student, Nihao’s It Going

Some older buildings look like they belong in developing countries because they were built when Taiwan was a developing country. There aren’t pictures of my own university’s Teaching and Research Hall on the internet, and it’s good news for all that it’s slated to be torn down and re-built. Across Taiwan, other schools are doing the same.

Asian English: “Do Not Disturb. Tiny Grass is Dreaming.” Courtesy: Etsy

Incomprehensible Teachers. The English ability of international students and professors is a moving target. The two have to communicate with each other, so it’s not really fair to criticize one without calling out the other. That’s un-possible? It rains bigly? These are some of the stranger things I’ve heard lately in “Taiwan English.” In fairness, many international students struggle with English, also. Both sides may insist their English is “100%” on C.V.s.

The danger here is judging people, instead of the situation. This is the English language in foreign countries. Chinese learners will discover the same when they realize HSK Level 6 Chinese does not take them as far as they’d like.

Stimulating Classroom Environment

“A lecturer at a Taiwan university has threatened to give all his students zero marks for the semester because he objects to negative feedback from one person in his class... This was followed by other bitter posts, including one that said that he wants the student to apologise and implied he has yet to upload the exam results for all the students.” — Straits Times

“The school refuses to tell me who is criticising me, so I have decided to give the whole class zero marks in protest.” — ‘Taiwanese Professor Fails His Entire Class After One Student Gave a Bad Review,’ Nextshark

Taking in more foreign students could help globalize Taiwan education, but instead, it’s the other way around. Traditionally, Taiwanese students just accept what is taught. The professor-student relationship is generally a one-way street. Most students do what they can to pass a class so they can move on, but stories of retaliation against those who speak out aren’t unusual.

This professor at Shih Hsin University gave an entire class “zero marks” because the school wouldn’t reveal the name of a student who posted a negative review on Facebook. In this case, the student is lucky, because, under Taiwanese law, some might have seen this as a case of libel. No one ever said free speech is truly free.

A student is just a student, not the future of an industry or a nation… Stories of retaliation against students who speak out aren’t unusual.

Not all classrooms like his, although many classrooms aren’t open forums where people build on each other’s views. There’s little opportunity to integrate perspectives. Even less to integrate Asian with Western perspectives, when relating to a concept. After being called, “the pride of Taiwan,” Pixar artist Chang Yung-han noted to The Reporter that he was, “more like the loser in this system. Taiwan’s education focus(es) on pursuing scores to fulfill the standard answers, and I achieved neither of them.”

Most often, a student is just a student, not the future of an industry or a nation. This means students may not have a voice. Study, but don’t think outside the lines, and don’t look outside the window. It’s presumed students are there to receive an affirmation, and to accept This Is All. Chang went on to question, “why Taiwanese society and institutions were so guided by a form of utilitarianism that neglects individuals’ personal traits.”

The professor-student relationship is a one-way street.

Some local professors are more progressive. It figures that people don’t always want to do things the way their elders did. Also, while foreign professors may allow students to expand on what is being discussed, they may not know much about how this relates to the local or regional environment, giving the impression to many foreign students that if it were only about classroom education, Taiwan offers no particular advantage.

At times, the professor may not know enough about what they are teaching. Some topics are required so schools can meet generally accepted international standards. Unfortunately, their expertise is in whatever area they got their Ph.D. in, and the educational materials may be rather dry. This can happen anywhere, but when managing the classroom, they are even less likely to promote or facilitate a discussion about issues they are not familiar with.

Taiwan is trying, though.

  • Bachelor’s degree classes started covering less. Unfortunately, it leads to students taking 25+ credit hours each semester. That tells you something about how much material they’re going over.
  • Instead of having more comprehensive courses, undergraduate students just have to take more courses. Exchange students at the undergraduate level may find out they need to take two courses to meet the requirements of one, at their home institution.
  • Another strategy is visiting professors from other nations fill gaps in subject matter expertise.

Sh*t. Is a Taiwan College Degree Worth Anything?

Taiwan degrees are well-regarded, in Asia, because of its high-tech industries.

Come if your country’s higher education system is not as well-regarded. But Taiwan has much more to offer. Perhaps you want to study its biodiversity, geography, the Chinese language, culture, or get a little closer to its high-tech industries.

Many of these goals can be achieved through an exchange program. Students who want to go in-depth will have to earn it, like the others who manage to find some value in a Taiwan college degree. There are a lot of successful and smart people who recently earned Taiwan college degrees from all different schools.

The challenge is finding ways to rise above the system’s major deficiencies. As a whole, Western students can expect lower standards for:

  • Learning Resources
  • Classroom Environment

Schools built on programs that are less likely to face these challenges often rank higher. For example, National Taiwan University and National Tsing Hua University are research leaders in high-tech fields. Taiwan degrees are valued, in Asia, because of its high-tech industries — including medical and engineering. Programs supporting these areas often enjoy more public and private support. Other areas of these same universities may face the same issues other schools have, if they are not as well-supported.

This is also reflected in rankings. Both National Taiwan University (#1) and National Tsing Hua University (#4) are on top of the 2013 Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) for Greater China.

ARWU is “the most widely used annual ranking of the world’s research universities,” says The Economist. In 2017, National Taiwan University fell to #9. There are other good schools that don’t show up on their rankings, mostly because they aren’t research-focused.

In Western countries, people are still figuring out and what and where Taiwan is. But, selective immigration of high-level STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) intellectuals to the West has helped the Taiwan brand a lot. However, a Taiwan college degree may not be a plus amongst this group. Many of these intellectuals worked very hard to leave Taiwan so they could earn graduate degrees at Western schools, after all.

Still, degrees from top schools and programs definitely have value. Like it is in many Western nations, attending university is no longer an endpoint, but an enabler. It’s up to the student, especially edge cases and outsiders, to get past the limits of their educational programs.

How to Make a Taiwan College Degree Useful for Global Citizens

Foreign students need to have a study goal. Surprisingly, many come to Taiwan without having anything specific in mind. Also, students should explore paths that are meaningful to them, instead of relying on their schools to provide a global outlook. In many Taiwan classrooms, providing a global outlook may just involve using a Western textbook, instead of Chinese. To Taiwanese, this is global.

Global is a matter of perspective
  • This means international students should be self-starters and develop their own opportunities. The limits of Taiwan’s higher education system are made obvious when it stretches itself to bring in international students, and its conservative culture make it difficult to be progressive.
  • Instead of challenging the inequities or failings of a complex system, again, students should find ways to strengthen or supplement their academic experience. Schools and administrators may not know how to help international students.
  • Students should also go find people, on their own, who will speak to them about how Taiwanese get things done. Making connections outside the classroom, not just for networking, but for education, is another key to getting the most out of a foreign learning experience.

Recommendations for Undergraduates:

  • Native-level Chinese. I have no reservations about a Taiwan college degree for this group. There are a lot of Malaysians and mainland Chinese here.
  • English-speaking. As mentioned earlier, for degree-seeking students, there’s a limited number of courses taught in English. Whether these students develop solid Chinese fluency is unpredictable.
  • The Exchange Option. Unless there’s a hard commitment to Asia, be an exchange student. This group tends to be better taken care of. Why? Because a relationship with another university is at stake. Students are asked to write reviews at the end of their exchange semester, and it’s better for everyone involved if students don’t have to be artfully polite.

Graduate students should aim for a top school:

  • Top universities (and their individual programs) have a better chance of surviving cutbacks, or the elimination of programs. Also, name brand schools with top-ranked departments tend to have more resources. For example, BYO specialized software is not an ideal scenario.
  • Again, invest time outside the classroom. Figure out how classroom learning is being put to work (or not) in Taiwan and Asia. Explore different local perspectives and identify the other pieces needed to be a competitive hire.

Doing business from West to East, and now the other way around as an American high-tech researcher in Taiwan // philipchang.org

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