The past few days have been exceedingly hot. All over Taiwan, high school students have been wiping sweat from their brows as they take their national examinations, while parents accompanying their children to the examination halls perspire as they wait outside. It’s a familiar scene that is repeated every year, and now seems a fitting time to think about whether the content of our education system is keeping up with the times.
Taiwan in the early 21st century has entered a period of shifting standards and changing values. In politics, following two handovers of central government power from one party to another, the idea of a sovereign Taiwan has become widely accepted. The voice of the common citizen has become the norm and the sharp division between the China-centric pan-blue camp and the Taiwan-centric pan-green camp has been diluted by efficiency and clean government.
In economics, Taiwan, as an island nation, is both dependent on and wary of China. While having great expectations of cross-strait links, Taiwan is hesitant about putting a foot forward. Within capitalism’s global division of labor, evolving cross-strait relations are having a deep effect on the allocation of manpower. In society and culture, the line between work and other aspects of life are becoming blurred and notions of privilege and disadvantage are being redefined.
Although fairness and justice are still respected, it seems they are being defined in more relative terms. In the face of all these changes, the realm of education, slow to react as ever, is floundering.
Policymaking in education is overshadowed by too many political factors. The golden age when education was supposed to be non-partisan, putting the student first, is long gone. Fights have broken out in the legislature over proposals to recognize Chinese academic diplomas and allow Chinese students to attend colleges in Taiwan. The controversy over Taiwanese students studying medicine in Poland is no longer based on purely professional concerns or differences in the two counties’ education systems, but on vested interests.
Funding under the Plan to Develop World-Class Universities and Top-Notch Research Centers, which set aside NT$50 billion (US$1.557 billion) over five years to upgrade universities, will be halved starting next year as other sectors demand a piece of the budget cake.
With regard to the reform of elementary and secondary school education, the attractive slogan of providing 12 years of state schooling is a cover for diverting massive funds into fast-food policies such as providing subsidies to cover the difference in fees between public and private schools, encouraging cooperation between technical and vocational schools and business enterprises, providing free tuition for practical skills courses, after-class care for elementary school students and tuition-free attendance for Aboriginal children and those living on outlying islands.
The so-called “diploma disease” that worried educators and sociologists abroad in the late 20th century is now affecting Taiwan. Even as government departments exert themselves to cut unemployment, figures released by the Council of Labor Affairs reveal that, since the beginning of this year, some high-technology companies, as well as electrical and other engineering firms, have only been able to fill 20 to 40 percent of available openings.
In other words, while nearly 600,000 people in Taiwan can’t find a job, many firms cannot find workers with the skills they need. Clearly, there is an imbalance of supply and demand between education and the employment market. Those who years ago formulated our present education policies could never have dreamed that the big expansion of higher education they implemented to crank up the number of graduates, while abandoning the previous insistence on fostering practical talent through specialized education in scientific and technological subjects, would produce the bitter fruit that Taiwan is tasting today.
A restrictive examination regime continues to ossify students’ thinking. When standardized tests predominate, standardized answers are the only criterion for assessment. Unbelievably, out of 250 questions in five subject areas in the Basic Competence Test for junior high school students, those hoping to get into their first-choice senior high school can’t afford to get more than three wrong. What does such a stressful exam really test — the ability to study, or the ability to split hairs? What kind of future generations will be produced when students are trained to react in such a mechanical manner?
At the same time, education has become an accomplice in exacerbating social inequality. Well-off families can afford to pay home tutors for their children, send them to after-hours cram schools, or move to an area with better schooling and send their children to private schools. They may even pay specialists to write their college applications. Coursework and exams are filled with middle and upper-class ideology. These advantages help richer students get into state-run universities, where they enjoy plentiful resources, but pay low tuition fees. Poorer children, who may not even have enough money for school lunches, end up going to private universities that demand high tuition and sundry fees. Insult is then added to injury as they bear the label of having attended supposedly second-rate institutions.
Teachers nurtured by traditional teachers’ colleges and seeing education as their professional calling no longer exist. In their place we now have those who added a few teaching credits to other majors and for whom teaching is only a job. The result — class management in many schools is getting out of control.
Where solemn graduation ceremonies were once the final and most lasting memory of one’s school years, reminding graduates to do their best in life, ceremonies are now exemplified by vulgarized crowd-pleasers reminiscent of lowbrow TV shows. When the president of National Taiwan University lamented over the imbalance between education results and employment trends, his words were nothing but a voice in the wilderness.
Today, Taiwan is at a point where we need to rethink our values. Isn’t it time for less politics and a bit more space for professional considerations in education? Shouldn’t technical and vocational education be redefined to match practical economic demands? Shouldn’t family education, parenting and social education be freed from prejudice and given an adequate level of educational resources?
Those who make policy decisions in education need long-term and penetrating vision, like philosophers. We should not allow the pessimistic view of education that calls for “deschooling society” to take over and create a nightmare for Taiwan in the 21st century.
Tsai Bih-hwang is a member of the Examination Yuan.
TRANSLATED BY JULIAN CLEGG
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