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Taiwan's Great Accomplishment
The country has produced a dramatic expansion of higher education

By David L. Kirp


 
I recently spent a week in Taiwan, discussing the ever-growing global power of market forces in higher education. It was a madcap trip—four universities, four cities, four days—and everywhere I went the conversation sounded partly like a replay of numerous conversations on American campuses. Has the earth, as New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman would have it, become "flat"?

I've experienced a similar sense of "déjà vu all over again" at universities from Wellington to Milan, where complaints about top faculty being lured away, competition for students and government funding cutbacks fill the air. Indeed, when in Taiwan I described the Italian higher education situation, without naming the country, everyone in the audience assumed I was talking about their country. A major Taiwanese publisher had translated my book, "Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education"—re-titling it, tellingly, "To Save the University"—and the list of individuals who penned introductions reads like a "Who's Who" in Taiwanese higher education.

Still, the more closely I listened, the more clearly the differences emerged. Imagine, for instance, an American university president complaining that potential donors give away huge sums, not to higher education but to the temple (Buddhist, of course, not Jewish), in hopes of acquiring karma for the next life. And imagine higher education policy being shaped in a political environment dominated by the possibility of national annihilation.

When it comes to academe, Tom Friedman has it only partly right. While the earth is surely flattening, it isn't flat, and it isn't likely to become so. What Taiwan (or Italy, Mexico or China, for that matter) can teach is that, in developing national higher education policy, it is vital not to be bedazzled by the marketplace-not to lose sight of key country-specific differences that define sensible policy options.

The familiar forces of globalization are everywhere in evidence in Taiwan. Taipei, the capital, has a 7-11 and a Starbucks every couple of blocks, not to mention Gold's Gym and eight (eight!) German restaurants. The nation bills itself as "Silicon Island," and it has the science parks and worldwide high-tech presence to justify that boast.

The "knowledge economy" requires "knowledge workers," of course, and universities have expanded with astonishing speed to meet this demand. Here, as in many corners of the world, higher education has gone from being an elite enterprise to a mass system. What's different, not just in Taiwan but in a number of East and South Asian countries, is the pace of change. In the U.S., the percent of college-goers hasn't changed much in a generation-about six in ten high school graduates enroll in a college or university-while in Taiwan, it's more than eight in ten. That's a four-fold increase in 30 years, and Taiwan now ranks second in the world, after Korea, in the percent of college-goers.

As is true everywhere higher education has become widely accessible, there is concern about the degradation of the bachelor's degree. New private universities have mushroomed in the past generation—they account for two-thirds of Taiwan's 160 institutions of higher learning, and enroll more than 60 percent of Taiwanese undergraduates-and the worst of them, like their American counterparts, admit anyone, however ill-prepared, who can scrape up the tuition.

Competition is fierce for entrance to top-ranked universities like National Taiwan University (NTU). On the eve of the crucial national entrance examination, secondary school students post red slips of paper at the temples, appeals to Buddha or Confucius to grant them a top score. One result, as a dean from a less prestigious university bitterly complained during my visit, is unequal access to the best schools.

As in the U.S., wealthy students, whose parents can afford to give them advantages like top-notch cram courses, go to the top-ranked institutions, while those from poorer families wind up lower on the academic totem pole. Not only do public universities have a near-monopoly on prestige, but because tuition is half what private schools charge, well-off families typically pay less than poor families for their children's college education. That too is a common American lament-as the recent Chronicle of Higher Education report on access confirms, inequities in access are much greater on this side of the Pacific.

More and more, competition for students has become international. Taiwan has long seen its best Ph.D. students head to the U.S., many of them for good, and it is trying to change that. A few institutions are developing graduate programs, with some courses taught in English, to attract foreign students, and the top universities have partnerships with overseas counterparts, which bring a handful of exchange students. But the student flow is mainly in the other direction—countries such as Australia and, increasingly, China, are poaching undergraduates. So far, foreign institutions haven't set up shop. But if the international negotiations over "services" like high tech-and higher education—mean "trade barriers" must come down, then such institutions as the University of Singapore or the University of Phoenix may well open branch campuses.

Across the globe, there is heated competition for star professors. It was big news when Taiwan's one Nobel laureate, chemist Lee Yuan-tseh, returned to his homeland in 1994, after spending most of his career at Berkeley, to head the country's foremost research center. And National Taiwan University, listed among the top 200 research universities internationally in Shanghai Jiao Tong University's influential rankings, has recruited some overseas scholars. But comparatively low faculty salaries and a flat pay scale have meant a long-term brain drain, especially to American universities, which can offer luminaries fatter paychecks and more lavish research facilities.

NTU has managed to remain a player in the international league despite the fact that it spends just a third as much per student as the University of Singapore and just a tenth as much as the University of Tokyo. Three other Taiwanese universities are ranked among the top 500 research institutions worldwide despite having even fewer resources.

In Taiwan as in many countries, government funding has not kept pace with the expansion of higher education. Tuition at public universities has remained low because of pressure from students and parents, and private donors are still a rarity (remember those contributions to the temple). The president of one major university told me he had raised just a million dollars in 2005.

Public universities, which have depended entirely on government for research support, are increasingly signing substantial long-term contracts with high-tech firms. That is a way of raising money, to be sure, but it's not necessarily a way to promote the academic mission or to raise universities' international visibility. Industry's focus is on the bottom line—that is what the market values—and this means underwriting projects that promise a quick payoff, rather than more speculative science. One highly ranked university boasts two new science labs, paid for by a high-tech firm. But because the company has some influence on the research agenda and first rights to patent licenses, these buildings are more outposts of industry than sources of innovation.

What should the next decade hold for higher education in Taiwan? If you buy into the approach touted by The Economist and embraced by some policymakers, the answer is the same across the postindustrial world: America is the model and the market is the strategy. But reliance on the market, and the winner-take-all competition that it generates, is a decidedly imperfect strategy for the U.S. It's no cure-all for Taiwan.

Taiwan's great accomplishment has been the dramatic expansion of higher education. Few other countries have been remotely as successful in creating a mass system. Whether Taiwan can create a stronger system of colleges and universities is the next generation's challenge. A dose of market discipline would help. This means giving universities greater autonomy to set tuition and faculty salaries, as well as to determine their own academic priorities. With the government's blessing, NTU is about to head down that path, and there is no reason why other universities should not be allowed to follow suit.

What makes the "American model" so seductive is the dominance of U.S. research universities in the world rankings—eight out of the top ten, 17 of the top 20, four of the University of California campuses among the top 50 in the world, according to the Shanghai rankings. NTU and a handful of other Taiwanese institutions want to compete in that league. NTU's president, Si-Chen Li, voices an ambition familiar to presidents of research universities everywhere: He wants his institution to be among the hundred best in the world. Greater freedom to compete in the world markets will help make that possible. So will greater research support from government, which has committed nearly $2 billion, over a five-year period, for that purpose.

While the U.S. is dominant at the top of the heap, the quality of American higher learning drops off pretty rapidly. More than eighty percent of colleges and universities are essentially nonselective; the ability of their students and the rigor of their courses are at best uneven. This too is a market-driven outcome—the rich do get richer—but it's not one that Taiwan, or any other nation, should copy.

The better model is California's 1960 Master Plan. With its guarantee of some higher education for everyone, its division of responsibility for teaching, research and training among different kinds of institutions, as well as its promise of student mobility, that Plan became a vision for the world. But in California, the Master Plan is now a broken promise, done in by steeply rising tuition—which, for out-of-state and professional school students, approaches the levels of elite private universities—and insufficient spaces for all qualified undergraduates. Even community colleges, historically free, have been boosting their fees and so scaring off students by the tens of thousands. California is now doing an especially bad job of educating Latino immigrants, on whom the state's economy and polity will heavily depend.

There is no reason why Taiwan should follow suit. With the country having reached an effective ceiling on enrollment, it has the opportunity to embrace the Master Plan concept of differentiating among types of higher education institutions, with different schools emphasizing teaching, research and training. When this idea was initially broached, however, universities rebelled—one president of a private school reportedly threatened to commit suicide if the government didn't permit his institution to train graduate students—and the government backed off.

Still, Taiwan would be smart to nurture colleges whose main mission is good undergraduate education, rather than to multiply weak graduate programs. It also makes sense for Taiwanese policymakers to brave student resistance and raise tuition, while delivering the instructional programs and scholarships that will boost the chances of the least well-off. In this respect, Britain has shown the way.

Taiwanese industry needs to learn that underwriting basic as well as applied research is vital to the nation's long-term economic prospects and political vitality; collaborative support for "pre-competitive" research, a strategy detailed in "Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line," offers one model. Wealthy Taiwanese have to be shown that contributions to higher education are a critical investment in their country's future. Cultivating the well-off is a skill that American public universities have been obliged to acquire during the past generation, and there's something to be learned from their experience. Meanwhile, the top universities should be strengthened. They need to compete in the Asian market for students and in the world market for ideas.

Equity and excellence, the market and the commonweal-there is no need to choose among those values. If Taiwan rises to the challenge, it deserves to become a model of higher education that merits global emulation.


David L. Kirp, professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and a frequent contributor to National CrossTalk, is the author of "Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education" (2003, Harvard University Press).

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National CrossTalk Summer 2006

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