Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Overhauling Taiwan’s education system

Taiwan’s education system has produced students with some of the highest test scores in the world, especially in math. However, it has often been criticized for putting too much emphasis on scores, too much pressure on students, and sacrificing creativity in favor of rote memorization. Taiwan’s educational reforms have changed this, but not necessarily all for the better.

Until 2001, passing the yearly joint entrance examination was the only path to Taiwan’s colleges and universities. The test was critical since Taiwan only had 50 universities and colleges with space for 250,000 students in the 1990s. With only one way in, tremendous pressure were put on students to attain the highest possible score in the exams.

Change to Taiwan’s college entry

With the end of martial law in 1987, the Taiwanese people began asking for more democracy, and educational reform was a natural progression. They demanded reforms that would prioritize reason over memorization and reduce the emphasis on central control and standardized testing.

In 2002, Taiwan finally modified the joint entrance exam, adopting a new “multi-track admission program.” One choice involved taking the General Scholastic Ability Test at the beginning of the year or the Department Requirement Test held in July. After the first test, students received their scores and then pay to apply to individual universities. On the “Selection of Universities” track, applicants were also interviewed by professors to gauge additional abilities on top of the test scores. The second track involved taking the test and being notified of admission based on the test scores.

On average, there are 140,000 students taking the general scholastic ability test, 110,000 taking the department request test, and another 180,000 taking the joint exam for the two-year junior colleges and four-year vocational colleges. The new multi-track admission program was not without its critics

New system favors the well off

Professor Chu Hao-ming of National Cheng-chi University wrote an article in the United Daily News saying that the government has adopted this multi-track admission program with the intention of correcting the shortcomings of the old system by giving students more choice, but this also has limited the admission of students from poorer families to universities.

Students from well off families can spend more time and energy trying to maximize their scores. They can attend cram classes or take extracurricular lessons on the piano or violin, go overseas to study a foreign language and need not worry about the cost of application fees. These are luxuries that are out of reach for students from poorer families, who have to work to help support their families. With less time and money, their acquired skills are also different, more likely to take up the guitar or play basketball.

Professor Luo Chu-ping of National Taiwan University expressed a similar view in the Taipei-based China Times. From his experience interviewing students applying for admission to the agricultural economy department last year, he saw a troubling trend. Of the 50 applicants, 70 percent came from rich families in Taipei City or County and they graduated from the better-known schools. Their parents were university professors, medical doctors, private business owners or mutual fund managers. None were from farming or blue-collar families. He urged the government to pay closer attention and to take corrective measures to help offset this disparity.

Current system not sustainable

In 1994, the Ministry of Education began allowing new schools to open and some colleges to become universities. This eventually led to an overabundance of colleges and universities on the island, now numbering 162. Taiwan cannot sustain 162 universities, according to the United Evening News.

Meanwhile, Taiwan’s declining birthrate has had a severe impact on the vacancy enrollment of universities in the last couple of years. High school graduates still struggle to enter the prestigious schools, like National Taiwan University, and ignore the lowend schools. The universities with less than 50 percent enrollment rate have increased from 11 in 2008 to 25 in 2009. Based on a 2 percent increase rate per year, the Ministry of Education predicts the enrollment vacancy will reach 71,000 in 2021.

It will only get worse with Taiwan’s declining birth rate. The number of universities will be further reduced to around 100, meaning about 60 schools will be closed due to a lack of students. Education Minister Wu Ching-ji said the ministry has been engaged in planning an exit strategy and transition for those schools.

Not all bad

Associate Professor Hsieh Kuo-rong of I-Shou University in Kaohsiung saw a new opportunity emerging from the potential closure of colleges. He wrote a column in the China Times about Wenzao Foreign Language College in Kaohsiung, which has bucked the bankruptcy trend. In fact, its enrollment has increased exponentially.

Wenzao has continued to invest in campus construction. At the reading rooms of the library, they use Chinese living room design. They provide power wheelchair access for disabled students – the first of its kind in Taiwan. All the departments there are equipped with resource rooms, including small libraries and satellite televisions. There is an “English Park,” “European Union Park,” “Asian Language Park,” “Chinese Park” so as to present an international learning environment. Teachers’ enthusiasm and dedication also contributes to the rising enrollment rate, according to Hsieh.

There is also some good news about Taiwan’s higher education. For the first time, National Taiwan University is listed among the top 100 universities in the world by the UK’s Times Higher Education. It jumped to 95th place from 124th in 2008. Education Minister Wu said this might be the result of the NT$50 billion (US$1.53 billion) budget in five years allocated to Taiwan’s universities.

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About Me

The Press Division of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in San Francisco represents the Government Information Office (GIO), Executive Yuan, Republic of China (Taiwan). GIO maintains nine Press Divisions in the United States, including the San Francisco office. The Press Divisions are in charge of promoting Taiwan's public relations and cultural exchanges. This blog is updated by the Press Division, TECO in San Francisco.