Protected as they are by the government, Taiwan’s national universities have grown rapidly over the years, and this has resulted in a sorry state of affairs. Many years ago, Nobel Prize laureate Lee Yuan-tseh (李遠哲) called for educational reform of Taiwan’s universities, suggesting that they could be modeled on California’s higher education system. California is a big state with plentiful resources. It is bigger and richer than many countries, and its population is bigger than Taiwan’s by 14 million people. Despite its size, California only has about 30 state-run institutions that have the title “university,” nine of which are research-oriented, and all of which are among the world’s most famous institutes of higher learning. Despite being much smaller than California, Taiwan has to support 50 national universities. Given the burden of feeding so many public universities, is it surprising if they are undernourished?
Under the current low tuition fee policy, Taiwanese students crowd into national universities. Most of these students choose to attend state-run institutions purely because of their low fees, not because they have any particular ambition. The worst thing is that, among Taiwan’s 50 national universities, while some department heads are worthy of praise, there are plenty of third and fourth-rate characters among them who sit around all day getting paid for doing nothing. They make no serious effort to raise donations and do not care about college governance. Some of them feel so secure in their guaranteed tenures that they are unperturbed when their departments fail to make the grade in academic evaluations.
In schools like this, morale on campus is low. Students think it is quite normal to sit in lectures eating their lunches and playing with their mobile phones. Only when they are nearing graduation and facing the ruthless world of work do they start to panic and turn to cram school classes. What kind of university education is that? Why should the state go on protecting this kind of B-grade national university? Why not just let them close down, or hand their management over to private enterprises or non-governmental organizations?
Meanwhile, there are plenty of private universities that have a good reputation and are enthusiastic about academic governance and teaching. These schools strive to excel, and they have made impressive achievements in areas such as cooperative education and internationalization. Their graduates’ employment prospects are good and their work performance is impressive. Universities like these have won support and praise from the public, but their big problem is that their hands are tied in terms of the fees they can charge and their style of administration.
If the ministry can succeed in narrowing the gap between the fees charged by public and private universities, and if it can gradually cut the subsidies paid to public universities over the years, while allowing private universities to adjust their fees and run things in their own way, many private universities will eventually be able to show their true worth. Many private institutions definitely have the potential to outshine those third and fourth-grade national universities.