Tue, Sep 14, 2010 - Page 8 News List

Equal opportunities in education

By Chiou Tian-juh 邱天助

Citing a shortage of funds, the Ministry of Education is halving the budget for the Teaching Excellence program for this year to NT$2.5 billion (US$78 million), while retaining the full budget for a controversial NT$50 billion five-year program to create top universities. A policy that favors certain sectors over others, and rich over poor, is a slap in the face of the teachers and students at the several dozen schools that have worked hard to achieve the Teaching Excellence award.

Higher education in this country has long been a matter of stealing from the poor and giving to the rich, working against private schools while promoting public schools and constantly replicating and reinforcing class structures. Disadvantaged schools and students have no chance to improve their lot since government policies continue to favor the strong.

The ministry favors a few top schools mainly because it wants to raise Taiwan’s international competitiveness. The purpose of the NT$50 billion program is to place a few Taiwanese schools on the list of the world’s top 100 schools. In this year’s Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) recently released by Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Center for World-Class Universities, National Taiwan University (NTU) had “improved” its ranking from 150 last year to 127. This caused a lot of smug people to say that not only is NTU the best of all universities in Taiwan, China and Hong Kong, it also managed, for the first time, to surpass the National University of Singapore, which ranked 145, thus making NTU the best among “Chinese” universities.

The fact is that in the ARWU ranking, universities ranked 101 to 150 are grouped and listed alphabetically, so there is no difference between 127 and 145. Not much to rejoice about, in other words.

Even if they had managed to make it to the top 100, what is the difference between 99 and 101? Who remembers any of the schools ranked below the first dozen or so on the list? How many people have heard of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, which ranks 23rd?

Furthermore, top Taiwanese universities like the National Tsing Hua University or National Chiao Tung University always rank in the 300 to 350 group, belying the idea that the NT$50 billion five-year budget is having any kind of effect.

An education policy focused on placing a university on the list of the world’s top 100 universities merely highlights the use of political rhetoric in developing countries. Even a place on the World Universities’ Ranking on the Web, which aims to promote Web publication and electronic access to scientific publications, is on the wish list of domestic universities, with schools ranking in the 500s and 600s making a big deal out of it. This obsession with ranking has reached unimaginable proportions.

National competitiveness depends on raising the skills of the whole nation, not on favoring a small elite. We cannot rely on cultivating a few top universities and ignore the rights and potential of the majority of university students, nor can we continue to create privileged and disadvantaged groups in complete disregard of social justice and fairness.

There have been reports that the ministry was considering cutting the budget for the “top university program,” but a few “powerful individuals” intervened and the budget for the Teaching Excellence program will instead be halved, creating a difficult situation for 30 to 40 universities that already receive little support each year.

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