Sun, Apr 01, 2012 - Page 8 News List

Consistent financing essential to universities

By Lee Chia-tung 李家同

A five-year, NT$50 billion (US$1.7 billion) program aimed at improving the international ranking of Taiwanese universities has entered its second stage. Even so, this year, all Taiwanese universities slipped in the annual ranking of international universities published by the UK newspaper the Times. One university slipped from 107th place last year to the cluster of universities ranked from Nos. 201 to 225 this year, while another slid from 115th place to 154th place.

However, is this kind of ranking really meaningful? It seems impossible that a university could experience such great fluctuation in just one year. Even if every professor spent a year at the beach, it is unlikely that the ranking would drop by as much as 100 places. And if one school drops, others will rise, so if one slips radically, it would only be natural to think that other schools could see equally dramatic improvements in their ranking.

This latest ranking must be a blow to the government. It has invested heavily in universities to improve rankings, only to see them drop. Anyone who did not receive financial assistance will surely think the program a big waste of money.

It is entirely unnecessary to pay any attention to these rankings. Instead, the focus should be on how Taiwan’s universities operate. We should set up our own requirements and we should help universities that show research potential to move up to the next level. At the same time, we must not forget that education is an important task for any university. If our universities use realistic and effective teaching methods, we should take pride in them, regardless of whether or not international universities take notice.

For example, the schools that receive a lot of bright students should strengthen their training in basic subjects. Students in science and engineering schools could focus on physics, chemistry and mathematics. Not only would this make them competent scientists or engineers, it would make them highly innovative as well. Other schools should focus on building students’ world view and training them in the humanities. That would substantively elevate the competitiveness of Taiwan as a whole.

University students’ knowledge should come from more than just text books. In particular, the education of students in technological institutes must be connected to the industrial sector and students should be encouraged to gain practical experience.

Financial assistance to universities must not suddenly rise and fall over time. If a university is given a lot of resources now, it will be able to raise professorial salaries and hire internationally acclaimed professors. However, the risk is that big increases in funding can suddenly dry up, forcing a school to cut back on salaries and making it impossible to hold on to internationally renown professors. Giving financial assistance to universities that perform well is the right thing to do, but that financing must be consistent and continue over an extended period of time, rather than the current approach of spending NT$50 billion over five years. A sudden increase in funding of that magnitude will only make it difficult to spend the money where it counts.

We should have a university system that we develop to meet our country’s particular needs. We should of course be in step with international academia, but we should also stop focusing on wildly fluctuating rankings, because that will only end up creating a lot of trouble for ourselves. Financial assistance to universities should continue, but it should be consistent.

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