Every year we see the same drama played out over the issue of university tuition fees. The plot is very familiar: First, universities say they are going to raise their fees, then public opinion comes out against it, and finally the Ministry of Education freezes the planned tuition hikes. This year the ministry has finally begun to see the light on this issue. Even if its first steps are faltering, at least it is a start.
A few days ago, newspapers reported that the ministry had come up with a draft proposal for regular adjustment of university tuition fees. The proposal is divided into two parts. The first part would allow national universities (state-run or public) to raise tuition fees by 10 percent for incoming freshmen next year, and by 5 percent for students in their second to fourth years of study. Private universities would be allowed to raise fees by a maximum of 5 percent for all students.
The second part of the proposal applies to all universities, both public and private, and is divided into two plans; A and B. Plan A would allow a maximum tuition increase of 5 percent to reflect changes in universities’ operating costs. Plan B is meant to reflect the quality of teaching. It requires schools to propose plans for improving teaching quality and would allow them to work out how much students should pay in tuition fees based on the running costs involved.
The most praiseworthy thing about these proposals is that they represent a new way of thinking that aims to narrow the difference in tuition fees charged by public and private universities. University education is not compulsory, so tuition fees should not merely reflect universities’ running costs, but also the quality of service provided. If the quality is good, students will be happy to pay a higher price. The most reputable universities around the world charge what at first sight appear to be very high fees, but their graduates are almost guaranteed to have a bright future. Taking that into consideration, these universities’ tuition fees seem much more reasonable.
Taiwan has had a longstanding distorted tuition fees policy, with the quality of teaching often inversely proportional to the fees charged by public and private universities. However, if the proposed policy is implemented and given time to take effect, then university education in Taiwan will be transformed from bland “vegetable noodles” into tasty “beef noodles” good enough to be served up in a five-star restaurant.
This transformation will be seen in at least two aspects. First, it will sharpen competition between public and private universities, and second, it will invigorate Taiwanese universities and prepare them to compete on an international level.
Since university education is not part of the compulsory education system, it is hard to understand why all taxpayers in the country should foot the bill for running “national” universities, and why they should be “protected” by holding down their tuition fees and subsidizing them through schemes like the Top Universities Project and the University Teaching Excellence Project.
In the business world, protectionism has been shown to have failed in promoting Taiwanese industry in the 1950s and 1960s, so it is hard to understand why this outmoded practice should continue be applied when it come to educational institutions. Ad hoc subsidies without complementary measures, like the Top Universities Plan and Teaching Excellence Plan, are especially wasteful. Apart from building campus walls, digging ditches and buying photocopier toner, it is hard to see any tangible benefits from these programs.