Mon, Aug 01, 2011 - Page 8 News List

Sick schools need a sensible doctor

By Chang Ruay-shiung 張瑞雄

Because of pressures caused by low birthrates, universities have come up with large sums of money in an attempt to attract more students to their schools. A certain national university on an outlying island that is not doing so well, in an attempt to attract students, recently announced that it would be spending NT$65 million (US$2,25 million) to give each new student a laptop computer. This is the largest total scholarship ever given out by a school in Taiwan. Even medical departments in private universities that used to be overloaded have begun offering large scholarships in an attempt to attract talented students to their institutions.

When people get sick, they feel bad and need to see a doctor right away, because the longer an illness is left untreated the worse it will get. Looking at the way these schools are recklessly throwing money around, we can see higher education in Taiwan is indeed sick. The ill, in this case our universities, all know they are very sick, but the only doctor that can help, the Ministry of Education, does not know how — or does not want — to treat them and is leaving everything in the hands of God.

The facts are clear. In 1998, slightly more than 260,000 people were born. Universities and technical colleges now take on about 310,000 students per year. By 2016, the people born in 1998 will be ready to go to university. Even if all of them go, there will be a shortage of about 50,000 students. What’s more, only about 70 percent of students go on to higher education, so things clearly don’t look too good.

There will be a presidential election in January 2016 — will the presidential candidates be ready to face these problems?

This year is the first year that students from China will be allowed to study at private Taiwanese schools under new guidelines drawn up by the ministry, but the results have not been good and only the top universities are able to attract students from other countries. Many less prestigious universities are therefore in dire straits, but if the government does not have any clear plans and complementary measures in place, I can’t see how these schools would close themselves down willingly.

A certain magazine quoted Minister of Education Wu Ching-ji (吳清基) as saying that the closure mechanisms of Taiwan’s universities are in place in case they are needed. At the moment, only the University Act (大學法) covers such matters, while specific laws on closure mechanisms for colleges and junior colleges have yet to be passed.

One university president said in private that he could understand Wu’s comments because not too many education ministers would want to be remembered for having closed several schools during their time in office, since it could damage their career prospects. However, this university president was wrong because a minister willing to close universities would go down in history as a resolute official with “guts.”

Universities are unwilling to close down of their own accord because they feel the government backs them anyway, while there are absolutely no incentives for private universities to close their doors.

For a school’s board of directors, closure would mean liquidation and many universities already have huge debts. Even in schools with passable finances, everything that would be left after liquidation — capital, land and buildings — would be seized and impounded by the state. Given the current closure mechanisms, it is really hard to imagine how any school would be willing to voluntary close down. In the end, the whole thing will become a complete mess that the government will have to deal with.

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