This year's college entrance examination shows that Taiwan does have a universal education system, with a record 95.5 percent of students gaining entrance into institutions of higher learning. But is this rapid expansion a phenomenon of globalization, or is it a reflection of an education policy gone wrong?
In 2005, about 82 percent of Taiwanese students were accepted into college. Not only was this rate higher than the global average of 24 percent, but it also exceeded the 67 percent average in wealthy countries. Even the 13 EU countries, which place a great emphasis on education, averaged only 62 percent.
Statistics from the World Bank revealed only four countries that had higher averages -- Finland and South Korea with 90 percent, New Zealand with 86 percent and Sweden with 84 percent. Taiwan and the US shared fifth place with 82 percent, which was higher than the majority of developed countries: Norway had 80 percent, Denmark had 74 percent, Australia had 72 percent, Belgium and Italy had 63 percent, Canada and Britain had 60 percent, the Netherlands had 59 percent, France had 56 percent and Japan had 54 percent.
Meanwhile, Switzerland, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, had a mere 47 percent. Clearly quantity -- or the number of people who attained higher education -- and competitiveness are not entirely related. A good combination of quantity and quality would be more effective.
If we look a bit closer, we would see that the universality of higher education among the aforementioned countries has not increased as much as Taiwan's over the past decade. Among developed countries, the ratio of students who went on to college expanded the most in Sweden at 80 percent, followed by 54 percent in Denmark, 44 percent in Switzerland and New Zealand, 39 percent in Italy, 36 percent in Norway, 29 percent in Japan, 28 percent in Finland, 23 percent in the Netherlands, 21 percent in Britain, 10 percent in France, 1 percent in the US and zero in Australia. Taiwan outstripped all of them at 108 percent -- even exceeding South Korea's 73 percent -- to make it No. 1 among developed nations.
However, widespread education among advanced countries is built upon large government investment. In terms of the ratio of GDP spent on government education funding, all those countries surpassed Taiwan's 4.3 percent. Among the four countries where higher education was more widespread than Taiwan, Sweden spent 7.5 percent of its GDP on education, New Zealand 6.8 percent and Finland 6.5 percent. The US invested 5.9 percent in education, while South Korea, like Taiwan, spent 4.6 percent. In other words, even as these countries invested heavily in education, they had been prudent in expanding the college population.
Taiwan's and South Korea's attempts to expand higher education on the cheap has turned out as one might expect. In fact, Taiwan seems even more intent on avoiding spending public funds on higher education than South Korea does.
The problems that this has caused in Taiwan are more serious than the numbers suggest. Statistics show that the matriculation rate is nearly the same as the graduation rate, meaning very few students fail or drop out during the four years of study.
For example, in the first semester of 2005, all universities had a dropout rate of less than 1.5 percent, while some had none at all. A lax educational system has resulted in less diligent students. As restrictions on foreign labor are eased as globalization spreads, an increasing number of the nation's students may find themselves unemployed after their graduation.