TAIWAN'S HIGHER EDUCATION is crumbling as a result of falling birth rates, overprovision of universities, and the ongoing transformation of junior colleges into science and technology universities. When a university is finally forced to close down, it will have a serious domino effect.
As a precaution, the Ministry of Education has to come up with a contingency plan. Unfortunately, it seems the ministry is merely concerned with reducing the number of universities and therefore wants to establish an exit mechanism for the universities, as well as to wield the power given to it through the school evaluation system in recent years. In the absence of a backup plan, however, the results will be unpredictable.
To put the exit mechanism into practice, the ministry has implemented a strict rule: departments or graduate institutes that fail the evaluation or those that require further observation are forced to cut student enrollment numbers. Failing the evaluation twice consecutively means having to cease enrollment. If several departments have to stop enrolling students, a university would have to close. Although this rule is effective, we have to consider possible side effects.
Today, the evaluation treats each department and graduate institute as a single unit, ignoring the overall situation of each school. A university with five departments performing well and five performing poorly is able to survive thanks to the contribution by students from all 10 departments. If the poorly performing departments were forced to close, the school would be unable to survive unless it doubled tuition fees. As it is absolutely impossible for any school to get away with doubling tuition fees, it would have no choice but to close.
Despite the fact that the ministry would have eliminated five poor departments, by doing so, it would also end up closing five successful departments. Is this fair to students and teachers in the latter?
Therefore, what the ministry should consider is whether a university should be allowed to continue to exist, rather than closing individual departments.
Evaluators are under huge pressure because evaluations are crucial to enrollment numbers. Should evaluators pass departments with borderline results? If they do not, the ministry will affect enrollment while resources will shrink as a result of the decrease in student numbers. But in this vicious cycle, the departments may deteriorate even further and eventually have to close down.
But if the evaluators pass them in light of these consequences, the departments will not be alerted to their predicament. Once a department passes an evaluation, it is free from any further evaluation for the next five years, and its students may suffer if it fails to improve during this period.
If the ministry wants to tighten enrollment figures using the evaluation results, the three levels of passing, non-passing, and probation may be insufficient. I suggest that another level of "conditional passing" be added. Thus, poorly performing departments can be allowed to pass temporarily without reducing student numbers, while preparing for an additional evaluation a year or two later.
What the ministry can do is to publicize detailed evaluation results annually, so parents and students can put pressure on schools to improve. Moreover, it can punish schools through the reduction of government subsidies instead of drastic measures such as reducing student numbers and department closures. Meanwhile, it should grant greater autonomy to schools. If moves to implement reform have to await government approval, how can Taiwan's colleges and universities improve themselves?