Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Taiwan News on Education Policy

Taiwan News serves up some bog-standard fare on Education Policy.

There has been almost no discernable breakthrough regarding education policy since the Democratic Progressive Party took power in May 2000. When the DPP first took power, I defended the new administration on a number of occasions against attacks by detractors who claimed the party's educational reform record was less than distinguished. I stated that educational reforms took shape during the period of Kuomintang rule and it was inadvisable to implement too many sudden changes. But after three or four years have elapsed, the DPP-led government has yet to have its own education policy in place, instead continuing with old KMT policy, which is just plain wrong.

The last sentence is ambiguous -- is it KMT policy or DPP continuance of it that is wrong? On to budgets....

.....This was an average annual increase of only 0.1 percent, while the overall budget increased an average of 0.8 percent a year over the same period. Quite obviously, increases in the education budget lagged behind those of the general budget. In the five years since the DPP has been in power, there has been a 64 percent increase in the number of university and graduate students in Taiwan, but the education budget has only increased 13 percent during this period, which means that the funds for education have actually been decreasing.

Hey, no kidding...the government's policy of subsidizing universities, leading to massive investment in them as subsidy farms for construction companies and other private interests, is slowly coming home to roost. The numbers are right but the writer has failed to spot the problem: not the lack of policy, but the existence of policy: the subsidy program for universities. That is now running up against the usual problem of inexhaustible demand chasing an enormously underpriced good. The result is a "shortage" -- the same kind of "shortage" that results from subsidized water and subsidized roads. The nunber of universities is naturally increasing faster than the government's ability to spin out subsidies for them, an inevitable result of the subsidies themselves. The correct policy would be to reduce or end subsidies for universities -- ironically, to eliminate rather than implement policy.

Unfortunately the author then veers into the usual fact-free, idea-free nonsense we've come to know and love from reading policy analysis from Taiwanese scholars, who seem to be good at venting, but poor at analyzing and recommending: its five years in power, the government has yet to push forward new policies to upgrade the quality of education. One possible exception might be the five-year, NT$50 billion plan to upgrade universities. This plan was not mapped out thoroughly before being announced, but rather first loudly proclaimed and then investigated. The DPP has always used this sort of method of first making noise before looking into the hard facts of a policy. This sort of planning does not usually lead to long-term results. Simply put, in five years time, the policy will be hard-pressed to find a way to survive.

Budgetary considerations and education policy are just two of the main issues, because there are actually many more important education-related problems existing in Taiwan. The government, however, does not have any reforms or countermeasures in place to deal with them. It needs to find ways to deal with the worsening situation regarding the allocation of educational resources as well as the inequality surrounding educational opportunities here. There are even more problems to contend with at all levels of education, such as educational consistency through the first nine years of compulsory schooling as well as the content and teaching materials used at each level. Yet the government does not seem to have a long-term policy in place to deal with the most basic of civic responsibilities, the education of our youth.

Observe, as always, the complete lack of concrete examples for claims such as "there are actually many more important education-related problems existing in Taiwan" and "the government...does not have any reforms or countermeasures in place to deal with them." Can we identify some problems, please? I can think of many, from the poor quality textbooks private publishers churn out (and which we have to explain to our daughter when she brings them home from school) to the insanity of the local language program to the poor quality of research and teaching in the universities, to substandard educational infrastructure construction....the list is endless. Last year I asked my econ students whether they wanted a textbook in English or Chinese. Many said "Of course, Chinese!" but a number of the more thoughtful argued for English, on the grounds that the Chinese textbooks are so badly written that they actually have an easier time understanding the English textbooks. Taiwanese explain this as resulting from the fact that the publications of Professor X are actually put together by his graduate students, whose understanding of affairs is often imperfect.

In cases the government does indeed have oversight policies but they are often ignored or not implemented. One of Taiwan's most urgent policy problems is not the lack of good policy but the failure to implement it, especially monitoring and oversight mechanisms, the classic example being the ability of corrupt politicians to leave the island after criminal convictions despite watched borders.

Another common problem cropping out here is the localization program. Under the DPP more and more of the decision-making has been turned over to the local governments. For many raised under the authoritarian and centralized KMT, and with cultural values that view autonomy as anarchy, this decentralization looks like (a) a lack of policy and (b) a mess. The result is widespread variance in policy -- differing textbooks, a serious matter in a country with a centralized testing system -- differing class schedules and courses, and so on. This is in principle good, but the kinks will be some years in the ironing out process. The new coursework (computers, English, local languages) is often taught by teachers hastily pressed into service with little background in the topic they teach.

With affairs in a state of flux, what we need is not fact-free analysis but concrete recommendations to move things forward.....but Taiwanese academics just seem to be defeated by that. Perhaps reform of the educational system should begin with reform of those who analyze it.

UPDATE: Scott Sommers neatly puts this article in context here.

No comments: