Tue, Oct 20, 2009 - Page 8 News List

Closing schools and low birthrates

By Liu Yu-hsiu 劉毓秀

A report by the Chinese-language Liberty Times (the Taipei Times’ sister newspaper) last Tuesday said that about one-third, or more than 60, of the Taiwanese colleges and universities were expected to close down within 12 years owing to a declining birthrate. Thousands of professors will lose their jobs.

Responding to the report, Minister of Education Wu Ching-ji (吳清基) said that his ministry was amending laws to facilitate the closure or restructuring of a number of schools.

Many who saw this report were clearly shocked at how the government had misjudged the situation. Indeed, it is necessary for Taiwan to cut down the number of its colleges and universities, but the government should bear in mind that low fertility — rather than the universities’ policies — would be to blame for their closure. The nation’s number of births has declined by 40 percent in a little more than a decade. Worse, the figure is still sliding.

The government and society have failed to face the issue of Taiwan’s low fertility because the public believes it is an unavoidable trend for a population to shrink as the nation becomes more developed.

However, two important studies have proposed a different view, and these views will most likely have an impact on political and social issues around the world.

First, the US Population Reference Bureau’s (PRB) annual report last year pointed out that “total fertility rates” (TFRs) had gone up in some countries that had low fertility rates and decreased in other countries over the past 20 years. This can be seen, for instance, in the increase in some northern European countries’ TFRs against the plummeting birthrate in Taiwan.

The PRB report attributed the rise to the following reasons: “Northern European countries have long been noted for their generous support of families with children, partly to ensure equal rights for working men and women.”

Another study entitled “Advances in development reverse fertility declines,” published by University of Pennsylvania professor Hans-Peter Kohler and his team in Nature in August, said that in advanced countries, work-family balance for women and gender equality at home are crucial to birthrate levels.

As for the declining birthrates in countries like Japan and South Korea, “failure to answer to the challenges of development with institutions that facilitate work-family balance might explain the exceptional pattern for rich eastern Asian countries that continues to be characterized by a negative HDI [human development index]-fertility relationship,” the study said.

The latter study was based on the UN index called HDI. Since Taiwan is not a UN member state, it escaped the criticism leveled against Japan and South Korea. However, the failure to facilitate work-family balance and gender equality also applies to Taiwan.

In a decade or so, one-third of Taiwan’s colleges and universities will close down, and thousands of professors would be out of work. From this, I think it is safe to say that the same percentage of professionals in all walks of life will also become jobless as more businesses close down, which will lead to the collapse of our social structure. Are we aware of just how serious this issue is?

The only way to prevent this collapse is to enact policies that will enable our citizens, especially women, to be able to work and not worry about childcare, while also encouraging more equal relationships at home.

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