Saturday, January 17, 2009

Paper on Parade: Taiwan's Universities and Globalization

Students prepare for an economics test.

I had pretty much discontinued this feature for a few months while I posted Paul Barclay's wonderful translations of the saga of Kondo the Barbarian and his adventures among the aboriginal peoples of Taiwan. But with that series soon to wind down, I thought I'd resume my exploration of papers on topics of interest to me.

Today's paper is Taiwan's Responses to Globalisation: Internationalisation and Questing for World Class Universities by Song Mei-Mei and Tai Hsiou-Hsia which appeared two Novembers ago in the Asia Pacific Journal of Education1. It gives a pretty clear idea of how the government is attempting to shape the university system in light of that primary Taiwanese anxiety: fear of being weeded out.

Beginning in 2000 with the arrival of the DPP in charge of the Executive Branch, the government launched a series of initiatives to change higher education in Taiwan. Song and Tsai note:
Obvious policy changes in higher education can be observed in various ways: diminishing state subsidies for the sector and the modification of its funding mechanism, increasing demands for accountability from colleges and universities, tighter bonds between universities and the industry, attempts to establish stronger ties with the international academic community, the pursuit of prestige in worldwide rankings, policy borrowing from developed countries, and the shift in state controls from regulation to supervision.
These were realized through initiatives like the Program for Promoting Academic Excellence of Universities (2000), Program to Promote International Competitiveness of Universities (2002), Program for Improving Research University Infrastructure (2002), Program for Expanding Overseas Student Recruitment (2003), Project for Developing Top-Notch Universities (2004) and several others.

Government policies in higher education are driven by fear of losing competitiveness, as Song and Tsai note several times in the paper:
The Ministry of Education (MOE) now faces the prevalence of globalisation and is starting to feel the pressure to make Taiwanese higher education more internationalised than it has been. It is deemed necessary to elevate the process of internationalisation to an institution level to extensively boost its integration with the global academic mainstream.
The response to globalization was thus greater integration, just as it is in the economy. Two major programs were erected to do this. The first was the Program to Promote International Competitiveness of Universities. Read carefully its five strategic initiatives:
1. Promoting international academic exchange activities;

2. Constructing an internationalised learning environment by encouraging
university courses instructed in English with a good support system for those
involved in the courses;

3. Encouraging universities to participate in international assessment as well as
professional accreditation in order to elevate university teaching and research
standards to international levels;

4. Encouraging universities to institute twinning programs with foreign
universities or to establish mutually recognised credit/degree systems; and

5. Establishing an English learning environment through enhanced internet
I am fond of pointing out that in Taiwan "internationalization" is often synonymous with "more English" and sure, points 2 and 5 there overtly define internationalization as Englishization. The other three activities are basically international exchange programs. Bear in mind that the program did not contemplate building links by wholesale importation of quality foreign professors as is common in other countries.

The program is carried out through subsidies. At Taiwan universities a Taiwanese prof can make extra money for teaching in English, for example. International students are also heavily subsidized:
The rewards [for hosting international students] are based on a progressive scale where the higher the quota a university is able to meet, the larger the subsidies it receives. Programme subsidies went to 10 universities in 2005 and 13 universities in 2006, with a total amount of NT$49.4 million (US$1.5 million) and NT$54.3 million (US$1.6 million), respectively.
The paper then moves on to a discussion of the university subsidy program. As readers of this blog will be aware, the subsidy program caused a massive expansion of the university system from 28 in 1985 to 145 in 2005 as many new private universities open and many former vocational high schools upgraded to universities. Because the subsidy was calculated on a per-student basis (once a school had qualified by meeting infrastructure standards), universities were rewarded for taking on more and more students, resulting in last year's embarrassing situation in which the number of places in the university system exceeded the number of graduates from the nation's high schools. Quality collapsed.

In addition to integrating with the international academic world, Taiwan also pursed a series of policies to upgrade the quality of universities to international standards, spurred by similar programs in neighboring countries. Song and Tsai observe that this program, the Program for Promoting Academic Excellence of Universities (PPAEU) "was the first mega-sized project (in terms of budget) that was individually approved by the government for higher education development." The program was targeted on "economic competitiveness":
Science and engineering projects were greatly favoured, with disciplines that study nanotechnology, internet, wireless communication, electro-optical engineering, and biotechnology highly preferred by the government.the budget for the four approved projects in the humanities and social sciences accounted for only 15.69% of the total grant budget in the first phase, the lowest among all four disciplinary areas. This declined to only 3.29% in the second phase.
The program was carried out, again, through subsidies to relevant infrastructure, and to the relevant projects mentioned above. In this program too the government did not contemplate wrenching wholesale changes in the way education is carried out by importing good minds and changing the nature of university instruction. Despite the expressed idea of implementing the program in higher education, funding recipients were limited to the big established public schools.

Another program that encouraged the formation of research alliances -- again encouraged by subsidies -- also encountered the same problems:
After the proclamation that successful integrations were being rewarded, however, colleges and universities suddenly became enthusiastic about it, with more than four university alliances formed only three months after the policy announcement and virtually all public universities participating in some kind of alliance (Kao, 2002; Lin, 2002). The public was especially sceptical because most of these applicants failed to provide concrete plans to enhance research excellence. Even members of the Higher Education Macro Planning Committee, who started the idea for the plan, regarded RUIP as off-track because many universities “integrate only for the sake of integration” (Chang, 2002, para. 1). The frantic formation of alliances was also described as “the rich marrying the rich” where less competitive universities are left behind and there is further stratification of colleges and universities (Hsiao, 2002).
Similar outcomes were observed with other programs that rained money on the university system.

Song and Tsai summarize the policy trends at the end of the paper -- strong emphasis on research, further stratification of the university system to strengthen the major public universities while neglecting private institutions (which are for-profit), and the use of grant programs as advertizing. This led inevitably to accusations of partiality when universities were rejected:
One extreme example was the case of National Chung Cheng University, one of the five universities that was eliminated during the final round of the PDTNU grant. Chung Cheng’s secretary-general went on a 31-hour hunger strike in front of the MOE building to protest the decision, leading legislators to interfere with the MOE’s decision and even freeze project grants until the matter was resolved.
Song and Tsai had no space to say, but at that point Chung Cheng had already been deeply embarrassed when it dropped out of the ranks of leading universities when the Ministry of Education changed the ranking system to put an emphasis on published papers rather than infrastructure. One reason universities put so much pressure on professors to publish is that the papers are one of the major ways the university is evaluated by the Ministry.

Despite the grant programs, Song and Tsai identify fairness as a major issue:
In spite of such policy changes, the government continues to adhere to the mentality of giving every institution the same amount of resources regardless of their true needs. Therefore, one of the biggest obstacles in Taiwan’s road to academic excellence is resource deficiency brought about by the rapid expansion of higher education and the country’s flawed head-counting funding mechanism. Depleted by the large number of students and institutions, the state’s educational budget was not ample enough to allow any university to pursue excellence. This is confounded by the fact that the MOE curtails universities’ sources of income and caps the cost of tuition for public, as well as private, institutions. That is the reason behind the recent emergence of MOE programmes that aim to provide extra funding for key universities.
In other words, the government does not lack resources; what it lacks is the will to do what must be done, such as shut down the worst 100 universities and fire professors who lack PHDs and/or publications, and redistribute resources to universities that can use them the best. At present teacher salaries, tuition, and other aspects of university financial life remain closely controlled by the government.

Note also that the government conceives of internationalization in terms of establishing exchanges of links with other universities, and in terms of bringing in students, but not in the most important manner: raising salaries and bringing in quality professors from foreign universities -- upgrading the system through exchanges of actual human beings. In major universities in Europe and North America a significant number of professors are foreign; outside of English programs where they are necessary tokens, foreign professors are rare in Taiwan. As long as the Ministry continues to regard the system as something that is the object of mere I/O resource manipulations, Taiwan's university system will continue to lag the nations around it in the performance of its university system.

1Song, Mei-Mei and Tai, Hsiou-Hsia. (2007) Taiwan's Responses to Globalisation: Internationalisation and Questing for World Class Universities, Asia Pacific Journal of Education, 27:3, 323 - 340


Anonymous said...

I don't know about non-science major. However, 40k for an assistant-professor with under whelming start-up fund is hard to attract young talents to be competitive globally (see latest C&EN). Some low Tier1 and Tier2 schools in the US pay more and have better start-up funds.

Some schools in China pay more these days through under the table compare to Taiwan. Also, would you pro-green fight over recognition of degrees from top China universities? While, it is almost laughable when some of the top universities degrees are more recognizable these days then NTU.

Michael Turton said...

I totally agree. China is rapidly outstripping Taiwan, which refuses to pay for world-class talent, as well as completely revamp its teaching methods.


Anonymous said...

I guess we (Indians) are not the only country (India) facing this issue. Taiwan looks like has similar issues. Indian universities (colleges which are getting converted to universities recently) have little or no standards of teaching. All these colleges care about is number of students they take in. Quality is dropping like a lead-ball. But neither the government nor the universities care.

This is the prime reason why Indians always choose to go abroad to pursue higher education. You see thousands of bright students going to USA, UK and Australia each year because quality of education there is much better than at home. Students don't mind taking in huge sums of loan and repay for years together after graduation all to seek better education and opportunities.

We infact are in the business of helping students find the best overseas education they can afford.
- S

Anonymous said...

One the one hand, I find the equation of “internationalization” with learning English pretty funny. While not exactly anthropomorphic in conception, the idea is driven by the same sort of reflexivity at the heart of the pathetic fallacy; it’s not far away from imagining that eating the tongues of urban Midwesterners in the States could make one’s English pronunciation “correct.”

On the other hand, though, this is all quite serious; an extreme waste of money and opportunity –- a waste with very deleterious economic consequences. About the only thing intelligent in all of it is the government’s fear of losing competitiveness. It’s slapdash policy, what in China they call “crossing the river by stepping on stones.” I think whether here or in China, though, the nature of the whole approach is better summarized not by whimsical idiom but by this quote: "I hate jailbird chess...I hate the a fuckin' little tweety bird...'eeww, here's a move!" (Robert Stone, Dog Soldiers [1974])

The pure top-down thinking displayed by the later policies cited in the paper is partly a consequence of the failure of Lee Yuan-tse’s reforms at the turn of the millenium; people were confirmed in their culturally-conditioned notion that bottom-up change almost never works. (You could feel back then the government’s desperation in deciding to throw a huge amount of money at top universities in an effort to get them into international top-100 rankings.) But the truth with regard to education-system problems is opposite: without enough bottom-up change, top-down policy-making can never be effective – precisely as the failure of Dr. Lee’s efforts showed; parents acting out cultural imperatives sank a well-intentioned liberal program that naively failed to well-enough take into account those imperatives.

Taiwan can’t internationalize so long as fear of being weeded out is the primary motivator of persons; the whole “weeding out” ethos (not merely the idea itself, but also the ideas that support it and that it supports) militates against the liberal (every sense of the word) thinking at the core of the denotation of “internationalize” in most other developed nations’ vocabularies.

Though it gets me in trouble to say so here, the evidence appears quite strong to me that the illogic of most of the major premises driving the policies cited in the paper may never be obvious to enough Taiwanese if the fundamental, non-supernatural-yet-still-religious-in-character premises of culture (especially the “harmony” value) are not first examined and to a large-enough degree diminished in power.

Until then, a Chinese meme dating back to the Opium War will probably continue to prevail: the idea that you can modernize (read “internationalize” here) by selecting the “superficial” virtues of foreign thinking and methods while keeping the more essential, core Chinese virtues. And that notion is another strong root of the education-system-policy folly. I don’t see how there will ever be many much-needed non-English department foreign faculty members at Taiwanese universities until this whole racialist assumption is exchanged for more universalist views – which in this case, as repeated policy failure shows, almost certainly would constitute more clear-sighted and practical views.