Staying Competitive: Taiwan Education in a Globalized Marketplace

The term globalization is often bandied about these days, but it’s not clear to me what the term means. It’s often used in a way that implies a monolithic force swallowing up the different economies of the world in a way that’s beyond local control. In fact, ‘the global’ is frequently contrast with ‘the local’ to make this point and included along with many other ideas derived from discussions of ‘imperialism’ or ‘Americanization’. More recent discussion of this issue avoids the term ‘global’ and the concepts related to ‘imperialism’ that grew out of it. More significant terms have become neoliberalism and marketization.

I originally wrote this piece in response to a question by my colleague Dr. Glenn Reeves concerning the emergence of international education in Taiwan. Glenn’s question addressed the relationship between the expansion of post-secondary education, lack of funding, and the growth of international education as an alternative funding source. My answer was that these were not related concepts. International education was not this thing that schools were calling for as a way to expand revenue. Instead, individual schools, rather than clambering for entry into this global market are being pushed screaming and yelling in to it by governmental forces they appear only reluctant to follow. Entry into this market is being enticed by huge government subsidies but despite this, the leaders in the market have remained the same schools that were leaders in the education market long before ‘globalization’ began. Glenn asked me to expand, and this was my initial response.

I initially did not post this because my thoughts on the matter of culture, globalization, and education in Taiwan are no longer accurately represented here. In particular, this post fails to link neoliberal marketization with educational issues in Taiwan. Still, given the debate that has erupted on other completely unrelated posts, I thought a resurrection of this post a good way to reposition the debate in an appropriate fashion. Please keep in mind that this is neither a completely finished piece nor one that completely captures what I currently believe to describe the entire picture of neoliberalism and its impact on education in Taiwan.

As regular readers of my site know, I believe that state education in Taiwan, while occurring in schools, has many dissimilarities from that found in the West. There are those who believe this is linked to a deeper psychology of Chinese people evolved over their thousands of years of living together in a cultural unity. I believe this is a position that can not be sustained in light of contemporary historical, social, or cultural methods, nor is it one that a detailed examination of the relevant facts support.

The development of professional education in Taiwan has not followed the same path of development as it has in the West because Taiwan is only now emerging from a colonial condition. Structurally, education continues to maintain many of the same institutional forces created by colonialism under the Japanese and then later under the KMT. These structures have interfered with the education system’s ability to respond to the goals and objectives of the professional educators who work in the system. While this structure was effective in educating competitive workers for the mid and late part of the 20th century, the emergence of marketized education has put an end to this. The changes we now call ‘international education’ or include under the title ‘globalized education’ are driven by a need to keep the Taiwan education market competitive in the novelty of this new world. The central government is responding as task master to make this all happen.

But there are obstacles that hinder this development. Vestigial remnants of Taiwan’s development as a colony continue to function. Schools are among the most strongly affected by these conditions. Skill development was replaced as the primary focus of schooling by political goals implemented during colonial rule. The mechanisms designed to assure loyalty to the one-party military government of a colonial settler state continue to function at some level in the schools they controlled under a martial law that ended only 20 years ago.

In this post I want to examine a number of the most prominent aspects of education in post-colonial Taiwan. While teachers have been instrumental in the changes occurring in democratic Taiwan, the organization of their professional units retains much of the structure of the birth of the profession as highly militarized civil servants. A more significant barrier is the continued and widespread use of government-mandated paper and pencil tests to make professional decisions. Finally, I will discuss the problems of competitiveness breed by this system for a Taiwan in an increasingly competitive world market system.

But let me start with the history.

Colonial Education in Taiwan

Colonial education in Taiwan under the Japanese and then again under the KMT resulted in schools whose purpose was not primarily the goals and objectives of professional educators. Schools were transformed into institutions of socialization and national security. Teachers became security agents of the government working in an institutional setting that tied them to the state in the same way as professional military personnel.

Following their 1895 defeat in the first war with Japan and the signing of the infamous Treaty of Shimonoseki, Taiwan became a part of the Japanese colonial empire. In the 50 years of colonial rule that followed, Japan built a vast infrastructure transforming Taiwan from frontier hinterland into a vibrant colony holding strong identification with the metropole.

Central in this transformation was the place of schooling and education. Taiwan was the site of one of the boldest colonial experiments of all time. Beginning in the early part of the 20th century, Japanese colonial officials built thousands of schools all over the island. By the end of the war, almost all Taiwanese had been schooled in the Japanese language with many becoming fluent (Tsurumai, 1977). Some wealthy Taiwanese were even able to continue their schooling in Japan. Taiwanese spoke Japanese, many lived like Japanese, and a sizable number even served in the Japanese army fighting in the Pacific Theatre against the USA and its allies (Chou, 1991).

But of course the Japanese surrendered and Taiwan was returned to control of the legal Chinese government. By that time, however, all had changed in China. The imperial order that had ceded Taiwan to Japan had long disappeared and the KMT were now the legitimate government. They brought to Taiwan an entirely new way of life that virtually no one on the island had ever experienced.

Some might call it unreasonable to define KMT rule over Taiwan as a colonization. Yet it would be hard to mistake the similarities. The KMT mandated use of a language that was all but unknown in Taiwan, they imposed a harsh military control over the region, and finally, following the events of February 28, 1947, went on a killing spree that ended in the deaths of between 10 and 20,000 locals (Lai, Myers, and Wei, 1991). The following year, the KMT declared a martial law in Taiwan that was to last until 1987.

Despite the poverty, death, and oppression brought about by KMT’s initial rule over the island, the major transformation of the island’s history occurred after 1949. That year marked the end of the KMT’s struggle on the mainland and their flight to Taiwan. Millions of refugees, including soldiers and political officials, fled to Taiwan where they settled in an American-backed regime that promised to retake the mainland.

While Taiwan had been under KMT control for many years, one of the most salient aspects of education was how little impact their control had had on schooling. Many of the teachers trained and appointed by the Japanese were still working in public schools. Due to a shortage of Mandarin-speaking teachers, Japanese was still widely spoken on the island. Particularly following the 228 Massacre, little local identification with the KMT authorities or China had emerged (Peng, 1972) and as such, instruction in many public schools had continued in Japanese.

The KMT quickly established a school system and government apparatus whose purpose was to socialize Taiwan residents into their version of Chinese identity. To do so, they created an education system whose planned impact was total; every facet of socialization was to be impacted by the public school system. Language and culture education laws were imposed that mandated the use of Mandarin in all official functions. Textbooks and other teaching materials became standardized and controlled through a government corporation. The KMT militarized the teaching profession allocating it special privileges that paralleled those enjoyed by professional soldiers and public servants.

Most significant of all was their use of testing. Prior to 1905, tests had been used in Imperial China for the selection of public servants. This system had disappeared almost completely (Tien, 1972). One of the KMT’s first actions was to revive and expand testing to include a vast array of different aspects of life. The imposition of government-controlled paper-and-pencil tests to every facet of life in Taiwan assured that the government could define what legitimate knowledge would be. By writing these tests only in the Mandarin-language and by assuring they contained political information about China and KMT doctrine, the government/KMT came to define legitimate professional knowledge in a very political way.

The delivery of this knowledge was codified into law and a formal system of delivery was constructed. By the lifting of martial law in 1987, it had become so firmly entrenched into the Taiwanese way of life that many perceived it to be ancient.

Since Martial Law

Martial law in Taiwan ended in 1987. The subsequent development of direct election of the presidency and an end to censorship assured that public life would become something different. Government control over schooling has transformed along with other aspects of life. Nevertheless, the vast infrastructure of control established by the KMT over citizens has not been so simple to dismantle. This section focuses on two of the most significant of archaic educational infrastructure that have survived the lifting of martial law: the political organization of teachers and the spread of testing.


Legislative Yuan debates stretching back in the early days of Taiwan’s democracy show the turmoil of teachers. Teachers have been among the most vocal of voices calling for educational reform. Teachers have for more than a decade called for substantial reforms in testing and textbook publication. (Chen, 2002). Despite this, they have vigourously resisted the reform of their own professional organization into a structure more in-line with that of teachers in other countries.

Public school teachers continue to be heavily aligned with the KMT. Typically, they are among volunteer as party and election workers and vote in-bloc for the KMT. Many of the teachers I know personally still support Pan-Blue politics. Elementary school teachers I once taught were not only members of the KMT, but volunteered as campaign workers for the current Taipei mayor and KMT chairman Ma Ying-Jeou or had worked as scrutineers on election day. One retired school teacher that I know, continues to votes for Pan-Blue politicians despite coming from the traditionally most powerful DPP stronghold in Taiwan and from a family of local DPP politicians. While I do know school teachers who support the Pan-Green parties, they are very few in number and far outnumbered by those who support the Pan-Blue.

In some sense, this is perfectly understandable. The DPP have been in conflict with teachers almost since their election in 2000. Numerous marches calling for legal reforms to the profession have occurred during their control of the presidency. While these marches have ostensibly opposed limits on the ability of teachers to organize, the reality is more complex. Financial pressures on the Taiwan government are forcing the reduction of unequal benefits, including the generous pensions and special income tax exemptions granted to public school teachers (1), (2), (3), (4), (5).

The significance of this is that while teachers are willing to take some steps toward adopting a relationship with students and state more in-line with their role as education professionals, they have not been willing to go the complete distance. Teachers continue to lobby a loosing battle for the preferential treatment they received during martial law, and conflict over this treatment has resulted in the continued linkage between teachers as individuals and various political parties. It is likely that should the KMT once again win the presidency, teachers’ cries for unionization will disappear into an informal, or perhaps even formal, bond with the KMT.


Contrary to popular belief, testing in the Republic of China did not begin in Republican China. The Examination Yuan, whose origins are found in the writings of Sun Yat-Sen, was virtually non-existent during that period. Testing as we see it today in Taiwan began only following the 1949 flight of the KMT. Finding that, despite half a decade of KMT control, Japanese was still the most widely used language of daily discourse and education. Subsequently, the KMT implemented a language policy which included mandated Mandarin fluency as a barrier to entry into universicoherentty and the professional classes.

The significance of testing in the Republic of China can only be compared with its use in other modern countries. While the testing of professionals and government employees is widespread in many other countries, particularly in Commonwealth nations such as Canada, its organization has been quite different. The most notable feature of this difference is that in Western nations, testing is run by the professional groups that are being selected for. That is to say doctors write the tests that select for doctors or at least the medical associations do. Lawyers and their bar associations write the tests that select for lawyers. In schools that have entrance tests, it is the teachers of the schools that write these tests. The only exceptions I can think of to these rules are the use of private tests like the SAT and the ACT. But such tests are neither compulsory nor necessary. It is the professor-administrators of the schools that decide to adopt these test as entrance requirements and how they will be interpreted. More significant is that increasingly schools are dropping such tests as admission requirements because of decisions by professor-administrators.

In Taiwan, tests are said to be ubiquitous. In fact, testing is probably no more widespread than in Canada. I doubt that Taiwanese write many more tests during their lifetime than do Canadians. Certainly I have written a vast number of tests in my life. Nor do I believe that such tests are more important for an individual career than in Canada. As a friend of mine in Canada’s federal Ministry of Agriculture replied when I asked him about this,

If you are trying to get into the federal public service, in my experience, a fair number of jobs would require one or more tests as a way of determining who was invited to an interview. Depending on the particular job this could be a “take home test” in which you might be asked to write a speech and/or a policy brief and/or a statement about your opinion of a particular policy; or it could be condensing or explaining a document; or it could be a multiple choice test where you are asked which of a choice of shapes or numbers or drawings would complete a sequence (or other tests of whether you have a logical mind). I did not have to do this sort of test but I did have a series of interviews. In general, if you were consistently bad at taking tests it would reduce your chances to get into the federal public service but it would not eliminate them. In addition there are tests of public servants for language proficiency, which there are complex rules around.

My brother who was recently hired as Research Director for a non-profit government-funded organization was asked to write a test as part of his application process.

So if the differences are not necessarily in their number or their importance, what are they? The differences lie in who gets to write these tests, and hence in who defines what knowledge is important. As I stated above, in Canada and other Western states, it is the professionals themselves who write them. In Taiwan, while professionals do the writing, they do so following complex rules for content that are defined by government agents. What must not be lost is that this is a system established and expanded to control access to many aspects of life under the military control of the KMT. And that perhaps the single biggest aspect of life that military government was forced to deal with at the time of the establishment of the testing system was the lack of Mandarin language skills among indigenous Taiwanese.

Competition and Contemporary Education

This brings us to today – democratic Taiwan, a member of the WTO, trading openly with much of the world.

It’s often said that we are living in a world without borders and that governments and nations are disappearing as major players in the world game. Terrorists, NGOs, and MNCs are increasingly making nations and nationalities irrelevant. But this is clearly not the case. Governments are in fact stronger than ever. They are playing bigger roles than ever in assuring that their citizens and their capital are protected.

But while the demise of national government is greatly exaggerated, it has taken on an entirely different form. The world is an increasingly marketized place and governments  are coming to play a major role in the functions of these markets. Aspects of life that in the past were left solely to individuals or commercial agents are now experiencing the presence of the state.

The opposite is also true. Aspects of government that have historically been safely within the confines of the public sector are now increasingly becoming a part of the market experience. Primarily, this is explained as a financial decision of the state. For example, military contractors such as Blackwater USA are cheaper and more flexible than regular soldiers. Privatized prisons offer a less expensive way to house the vast and growing number of American ‘criminals’. Even in Canada, the birthplace of public health insurance, private health care alternatives are finding favour among some governments.

While Taiwan’s expansion of private post-secondary education is clearly tied to an inability to completely finance the demand for university education, this is not the whole story. In this world increasingly defined by the sale of marketized education, Taiwan is a loser. In a sense, how couldn’t it be? Taiwan education is powered by schools that for decades were the engine of ideology for a military regime. It has hardly been 20 years since a political structure was even in place where the reforms that could make a competitive school were even imaginable, much less actualized. It was not until the turn of this century that students did not have to pass tests on political information to enter university. And despite this and other reforms, military instructors still serve on school campuses. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of contemporary education is the continued use of an examination system that was originally instituted to assure citizens conformed to the political needs of the KMT. Carrying such baggage, is it any wonder that Taiwan schools are not competitive?

Taiwan has become neither a supplier of students nor a major provider in the world of marketized education that is becoming. It is no surprise that the number of Taiwanese studying abroad since the expansion of universities has declined. At the same time, China has emerged as a major source of foreign students. But the Ministry of Education wants to change all that. At the opening meeting of my school, the Assistant Minister of Education Dr. Lu Mu-Lin talked about his admiration for the University of California system. In gradual steps, the MOE is transforming Taiwan education into system more in-line with the schools of the most competitive nations in the world. Post-secondary education is now longer an elite privilege and transfer to higher status schools is now a common place occurrence. Curriculum is increasingly focusing on skills rather than political knowledge. Even the hegemony of testing and the Examination Yuan are being questioned.

One curious aspect of the drive for increasingly competitive schools has been the emergence of Taiwan as a center for international education. The schools of stronger economies have for decades been a destination for vast numbers of foreign students. Taiwan has also had large numbers of foreign students in the past, the vast majority of students who study academic subjects at a university are however overseas Chinese. Middle-aged Taiwanese friends of mine have often related stories to me of overseas Chinese students from Malaysia or Hong Kong studying in their class. A Hong Kong Chinese man that played rugby with, back in the days of KMT government, even told me that he had been given an ROC passport when he arrived and that this was not unusual for Hong Kong Chinese students in Taiwan.

The move now is toward the opening of English-language programs to attract foreign students. As I showed in a Power Point from the opening meeting of my school, the vast majority of foreign students at Taiwan universities are studying at national universities. Almost all of these foreign students are enrolled at a handful of of predominantly high-ranked national schools in programs extremely well funded by the government. As Dean Henry Wu of the College of Management at National Cheng Kung University pointed out to me, attraction of foreign students is one of the conditions of the massive amount of money being infused into the selected top national universities of Taiwan. This point was emphasized in the statement of Assistant Minister Dr. Lu  in his statement on building world-class research universities (also see this statement).

In fact, it appears that only national schools are in any sense prepared. In his interview, Dr. Wu of NCKU detailed a long-term plan targeting certain sectors of the business education market. The statistics of the program indicate he is systematically moving in that direction. My school, Ming Chuan University is the only private university to attract large numbers of foreign students, but it too has a coherent and complex plan to realize this. But it appears that in reality, it is largely national schools that have the resources and vision to actualize the MOE’s goals regarding foreign students.

As many of the people involved in these discussions have pointed out, such programs are extremely heavily subsidized. In fact, I doubt that any of the foreign students are paying anything for their tuition, and some are even making money. It is questionable whether even the well-organized, well-planned programs can survive withdrawal of this extensive support network.

Taiwan has never been a major destination for foreign students. The injection of massive funding with the assumption of transforming the nation into such a destination is questionable. The major destinations in the world took more than a hundred years to create a distinctive form of education plus a world war that made the USA and English-medium instruction the most desired. Not at all the money in the country can do this for Taiwan over night.


Chen, Jyh-jia. Reforming Textbooks, reshaping school knowledge:Taiwan’s textbook deregulation in the 1990’s. Pedagogy, Culture and Society. Vol. 10, No. 1, 2002.

Chou W. Y. (1991). The Kominka Movement: Taiwan under wartime Japan. unpublished doctoral dissertation, Yale University, New Haven.

Peng, Ming-min (1972). A Taste of Freedom: Memories of a Formosan independence leader. New York: Holt, Reinhart and Wilson. 1972.

Tien Mao-Hung (1972) Government and Politics in Kuomintang China, 1927-1937. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Tsurumi, E. P. (1977). Japanese Colonial Education in  Taiwan, 1895-1945. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA.


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