Over the past 15 years, the slipshod policy of establishing a large number of colleges and universities has resulted in a rapid expansion of Taiwan’s higher education. In recent years, some private universities have experienced a shortage of enrolled students. A study by the National Policy Foundation showed that the main reason for this is the declining birthrate. Minister of Education Wu Ching-chi (吳清基) said that if admissions continue to shrink by the current 2 percent per year, there will be a shortage of 70,000 students by 2021, which would mean about 60 universities would be likely to disappear.
Although these figures are not yet cold hard facts, they have already created a panic in the minds of many private university operators. As a result, they are taking precautions that are turning these figures into self-fulfilling prophecies, thus making their universities look as if they are about to disappear. In addition, they are making the mistake of blaming poor enrollment on the declining birthrate.
The fact is, however, that there is not a very clear relationship between the falling enrollment figures in recent years and the declining birth rate, a look at the nation’s population structure reveals. The most serious birthrate decline will occur 10 years from now. Taiwan’s annual population statistics, which are divided into five-year age groups, show that the declining birthrate is worst in the below-10 age groups, where there is a shortage of 600,000 school children. Thus, the real concern should be what will happen 10 years from now. Consequently, we can make the claim that the declining birthrate is not the main cause of the current problem.
It is wrong to blame the student shortage on the declining birthrate in an attempt to avoid responsibility for the poor management of some private universities. How else can we explain the expansion of some private schools where registration rates are almost 100 percent, while enrolment at other schools continues to drop to the point where less than half of all places are filled?
Several universities made media headlines for having the lowest registration rates in 2008. A shared characteristic of these schools were the poor results of their departments and institutes in professional evaluations. Students even mocked them by making up slogans using the names of the bottom five schools.
The directorial boards at some of these schools were very dictatorial and meetings on school affairs existed on paper only, their decision-making and financial situations were not transparent, administrative leaders strove for personal gain and recruited relatives and friends and faculty engaged in power struggles either openly or privately. These schools were on the receiving end of a lot of negative media reporting. Most of these schools no longer participate in the joint admission program and instead recruit students by themselves. These schools have now been replaced by a new set of schools at the bottom. Several of these are private universities established by religious groups.
In addition to some unfavorable external factors, the biggest problem this new set of bottom schools is their internal deterioration or even collapse. Originally, some smaller private universities had unique characteristics, but in recent years they have made compromises in a flirt with empty neoliberal discourse, causing them to expand rapidly based on market-oriented governance principles. Making cost-effectiveness the supreme goal has caused the core values of these schools to be hollowed out.