DPP Policy on the Expansion of Universities

One of the most talked about aspects of education under the DPP was their radical increase in the number of universities in Taiwan. At the same time, we witnessed a dramatic decrease in the number of junior colleges funneling most postsecondary students into universities. This policy has received severe criticism, particularly from educators. Even educators who otherwise support the DPP believe the expansion of universities has damaged the quality of education.

My position on this is quite different. The liberalization of education and it emphasis on university education has brought opportunity to Taiwanese who were left out during the elite education of the past. Ironically, it is the educators I know who talk about their preference for elite education and people from the business community who seem to prefer the more liberalized system.

Let me start with a story. This story is about the Jung Jeou University of Technology. Jung Jeou is located in Chang Hwa County near Nantou. A local friend once described it as a “wild chicken school”. I was offered a job there and turned it down. I have since told students that going to such a school is a complete waste of money. I was wrong.

Part of the DPP’s educational reform has been the expansion of transfer opportunities. It is now possible for large numbers of students who start out at lesser ranked schools to transfer to top schools. I have taught students who transferred from Jung Jeou to MCU. They were excellent students. They have also explained to me that the best students from Jung Jeou are able to transfer to quite respectable public universities such as National University of Kaoshiung or Sun Yat Sen University.

Keep in mind that these are students who until only a few years ago would never have had the opportunity to graduate from university. Because of some issue in high school, they would have been left out of the professional employment system. These problems might even be as minor a problem as a lack of knowledge of the Three Principles of Sun Yat Sen or ancient Chinese. As such, they would have been exiled to a junior college program and forced into clerical positions for the rest of their working lives.

Now, such students can enter low ranking rural universities with the possibility of transfer and even overseas study. In my work outside MCU, it is not at all unusual to come across graduates of MCU. There is a big difference between graduates from the MC Junior College and MC University. Graduates of the junior college are all working in clerical positions with limited opportunities. Typically, they would be secretarial assistants to GMs of foreign companies or clerks for government companies. Graduates of our university could be employed anywhere. Many graduates of our school now pursue graduate degrees overseas. I interviewed one such student in a study I did for our testing committee. She was working in an entry-level position as the recruiting manager of a major international form. Historically, this would have been impossible for our junior college grads. Graduates of MCU even work at our school as lab teachers, and in one case as a professor in Applied English, following higher education overseas.

This fact has not been missed by the local business community. I have spoken with many members of the foreign business community who have complimented me on the success that my school has had in promoting its presence as a provider of employees. They point out that over the period of few years, we have gone from an educator of clerical staff to one that regularly competes with graduates of more established universities for entry-level professional jobs. And while I am of course flattered by this, MCU is hardly alone in having achieved this success.

In fact, the only people I hear complaining about the current situation are professionals who graduated from the former old-boys system or educators. And this last group, I could almost take as whining about their situation since most of us wouldn’t have jobs in the older elite system.

Taiwan has historically suffered from problems of market liberalization. This survey that appeared in the journal Developing Economies highlights the problem. But in a sense, everyone probably already knows about this. We all know that Taiwan has far too many cable stations, but the situation is still better than martial law. We all know that the liberalization of financial regulations lead to the credit card problem. But the situation is still better than the ridiculous and dangerous ‘traditional’ lending schemes that emerged under martial law.

Education is the same. While the elite system established under KMT military rule created order, it satisfied no one. Ever before it was legal, public interest groups were demanding more freedom over curriculum and educational choice. The DPP has had their very own growing pains under democracy, but the expansion of the university system has been a great thing for large numbers of students. It has brought hope and opportunity to students whose parents never had such chances. It needs work, but of course it does.

But it is one of the things the DPP got right about education.

My position on this is quite different. The liberalization of education and it emphasis on university education has brought opportunity to Taiwanese who were left out during the elite education of the past. Ironically, it is the educators I know who talk about their preference for elite education and people from the business community who seem to prefer the more liberalized system. One of the most talked about aspects of education under the DPP was their radical increase in the number of universities in Taiwan. At the same time, we witnessed a dramatic decrease in the number of junior colleges funneling most postsecondary students into universities. This policy has received severe criticism, particularly from educators. Even educators who otherwise support the DPP believe the expansion of universities has damaged the quality of education.

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First off, by comparing the current situation to the White Terror, you set the bar pretty low. Sure – some degree of liberalization is necessary, but the question really should be “How much?” Surely our two choices aren’t simply all or nothing?

Second, there is another way to look at the current mess and to see the problem as one of not enough liberalization. I’m still not 100% clear on how things work in Taiwan, but I’m under the impression that even private universities receives substantial government subsidies. Whether true or not, we have a situation where there are simply far more universities than the current population can handle – and low birth rates mean that the population is shrinking.

The government is taking action – Hualien’s two fairly young universities (dong hwa and the education university) are now merging into a single school. But more closings and mergers will be necessary. The way that this is being done does not seem to be based on “market forces” so much as politics.

Finally, its worth pointing out that the US addresses the same needs you describe through its massive network of community colleges. They serve as transfer points for students who might not otherwise have gone directly to college, as well as offering some basic skills needed by businesses. I think it would be useful to compare how Taiwan’s approach compares to the US model.

You raise a number of issues that I would like to try and answer individually.

1) While the comparison with martial law is quite low, it is the reality of comparison with Taiwan. The fact is that until 1987, there was martial law. This is the condition that current policy is emerging from.

2) You are certainly correct about the political reasons for the shape of reform. But my point was that every reformed industrial sector in Taiwan has suffered from the same problem. It seems that there are conditions here that make this form of policy reform almost inevitable.

I agree that remedial education is a major problem here. I blame individual schools for this. Of course they are only responding to pressure from the MOE as to what constitutes academic excellence. But the responsibility to address academic deficit among students has been completely ignored by individual institutions.

The KMT had from 1987 until 2000 to affect education policy. While they instituted many reforms, these kept the condition of post-secondary schooling fundamentally unchanged. That is, it remained an elite experience.

I am quite sure that their reason for this was hesitance to alter the relationship between the KMT and university graduation. It is well known that urban professionals overwhelmingly support the KMT. When you look at what kind of knowledge that is necessary for high school graduation and university entrance, it’s clear that national education policy selects for politically conservative individuals.

It may take time to get this one right. But the problem of Taiwan education up until about 2000 was not how to prepare students for university. The problem was even more basic than that. Up until the DPP took power, the main policy question remained making university education a more egalitarian experience.

But is the new system more egalitarian? More students now have the opportunity to attend college, but the relative value of a college degree has correspondingly declined. I don’t know how one would determine this, since there is a lot of impact from overall changes to Taiwan’s economy. The White Terror period corresponded to tremendous class mobility, while the reform era has taken place during the emergence of what Taiwanese refer to as an “M-shaped society.” And even though more students might go on to white collar jobs, those jobs are increasingly routinized and less prestigious than those of an earlier era. So while companies may be happy to have the new skills students are learning at these colleges, it isn’t clear to me that these are skills which will lead to upward mobility on the part of those students.

There are no doubts about the fact that you have a broad knowledge concerning the Taiwanese Education System.
Thousand light years from mine 🙂 and certainly broader than many of Taiwanese professors.
So of course my point is not to argue with that.
And certainly not about comparing DPP and KMT…and whatever the color of the Terror.
I 100% agree with you that thanks to the fact there are more Universities now, so more chances are given to students.
But I have to agree with K. Friedman when he is talking about quality.
Yes, more people could attend to University.
But why?
Competition, of course!
Scott, how many Universities in Taiwan? I am not sure but it’s about 160 to 180!
In France for example, where most Universities are public, the total is 87… knowing that several are dedicated to specific fields (medical…)
Roughly, there are 18 million pupils and students (25% of the population)in the education system and just about 2 million in higher education (engineer schools, business schools and Universities). for a population of more than 60 million…
Don’t you think there is a problem in Taiwan?
Just compare…
You wrote: “We all know that Taiwan has far too many cable stations, but the situation is still better than martial law”… Better? Do we need to talk about Media in Taiwan and their quality?
You wrote: “the expansion of the university system has been a great thing for large numbers of students. It has brought hope and opportunity to students whose parents never had such chances”
How can we believe that quantity provides quality?
Yesterday, I was invited by my master students, to celebrate their graduation in a restaurant. Do I need to repeat their feelings about the situation? And this University has a good reputation.
You have to face a simple fact: it is a vicious cycle, the snake eating his tail.
Quality is awful, pressure on University to have more publications, professors spending less time for teaching and monitoring students and… quality going down.
I predict a tough time for Universities in Taiwan. And of course, solutions must include a reduction of the number of Universities and an improvement of the teaching quality.

“Even educators who otherwise support the DPP believe that the expansion of universities has damaged the quality of education (…) or educators. And this last group, I could almost take as whining about their situation since most of us wouldn’t have jobs in the older elite system.”

Scott, you provide a link to my blog? If you say your school has excellent students from “lesser ranked schools”, I have no trouble believing that because it’s only logical. But then accept that what I write in my blog is the opinion from my students themselves, not merely from colleagues who agree with me. I’m doing my job (and expression of my opinions) for their sake, not my own.

Like you stand up for the underprivileged students from ‘lesser” schools’, I stand up for those who’s degree is devaluating with every passing year.

You rightly mention problems in high schools. Unless the root problems in education in primary and junior education are solved, should universities should not be very careful in liberalizing their education?

You freely use the terms “low ranked” vs. “established” and “top” schools, and that students of the former now stand a much better chance to get into the latter. Could it be that you are arguing for merely assuring students have the means for circumventing (‘beating’) Taiwan’s elitist system – in order for them to also be able to get in in one of the top schools?

What I and a number of other educators argue for is to change the system altogether (including primary and high schools) so that there is much less distinction between top and lower-ranked schools. And while arguing for this to happen, the current system will inevitably be criticized. But maybe don’t just focus on our criticism of the system and call us ‘whining’. There is, I am convinced, a good cause with a (hopefully) equal good outcome to this whining.

As for me ‘otherwise supporting the DPP’, the latter have failed in effectively reforming primary and junior high school education. Without a priori paying serious attention to this, liberalization of university education is bound to cause problems and discontent.

Johan, ten years ago your students would not have had a university diploma. They would have become junior college graduates being supervised by Taida grads. That would be the end of the career. There would have been no chance for the best of them to transfer or ever end up in the same MBA class as a Taida grad. In fact, they would have been paid less at whatever job they worked at ONLY because they had a jr. college diploma and not a university diploma.

So I don’t doubt your report of your student’s feelings. I do doubt that they accurately understand how their opportunities have been effected by this change.

I don’t disagree with you, Kerim or Franck that the current system needs reform (all policy systems need reform). But this round of reforms has not failed and that needs to be recognized. It is a much better system than was available even when I arrived here in 1996. It is much more effective at serving the general population. It is much more effective at rewarding students for intellectual excellence. It is much more effective at preparing students for globalized professional work.

What I am surprised at is the teaching-centric world of the educators I am involved with. Would you argue that banks should still be run directly by KMT? Of course not. Liberalization of the financial sector came with a cost because post-martial law Taiwan has not been the 19th Century United States. But regardless of whatever problems the current financial system suffers from, it should be recognized as the huge improvement that it is over a formal sector controlled by the military and an informal sector that resembles loan sharking.

Once again, my point is that the current system is not a failure and this has to be recognized.

There is no reason about talking about the averages. The graduates of National Taiwan University are way more competitive than those of 20 years ago. They have a much more liberal education and there is much more participation in clubs and sports and other extracurricular activities.

The average goes down if you have students that weren’t going to college and now going to college. But they are better off than they used to be (the increased mobility), and for most of them, the investment is well worth it.

The devaluation of the college degree argument is stupid to. So there was some kind of artificial barrier creating an artificial shortage of college graduates? Now it’s market-determined? Great! If there’s oversupply, people will figure it out and people will choose not to go to college on their own. If you think you are better than those graduating from no name colleges, then prove it in your productivity. If businesses don’t understand that there is difference in quality among college graduates, those businesses that are successful at identifying the good from the bad are going to run over the ones that can’t, and there won’t be any problems.

Markets can have bubbles, but the market system itself isn’t the problem. Bubbles are only temporary after all.

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