Wed, Jan 09, 2013 - Page 8 News List

Education must find its direction

By Ian Inkster 音雅恩

In a generally well-considered New Year’s Day address entitled “Taking Strong Action to Redirect Our Future,” President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) made comments on the future direction of higher education. In light of recent events this poses some queries.

For Ma, the third of four challenges facing Taiwan “is the clear mismatch between students training and what industry actually requires. For a long time, universities here have developed rapidly without achieving the close link that should exist between academia and employment. This needs to change or it will affect Taiwan’s future development.”

Ma has a point if he is sticking firmly to the encouragement of high-level research and development partnerships between private industry and public educational and research centers, but the educational budget will then be feeding private enterprise profits. Certainly all governments should foster such linkages.

However, application and vocationalism should not become a basis for fundamental educational reform, especially when suggestions from last year (promises about increases in the education budget, reduced class sizes and raising fees paid to mentor teachers) seem to now be in abeyance.

Again, we can understand, but still be critical of Ma’s idea that we should “eliminate the wrong-headed idea that all universities should, by default, aim to secure a world ranking and publish research papers in academic journals ... they must maintain close connections with society and help build ties between academia, research institutes, and industry to fulfill their responsibility to lead society.”

There is no reason universities should lead this process. Industry gets the universities it deserves. If enterprise is truly enterprising then universities will respond and adopt research project leadership.

Silicon Valley in the US can offer a lesson. A great university (Stanford) already existed alongside a thriving old-style electronics industry. The early linkages were two-way and government followed rather than led the process. Stanford was a general, liberal-arts and world-level academic institution pursuing high level work along many lines primarily for academic intent.

There are many reasons why Ma is wrong in selecting an industry driven education system as the major focus for higher education, but there are four generic points, common at least to all democratic nations, that show how his premise should be rejected.

First, universities are not especially good at training directly for business or the public sector, especially “narrow-gate” training in business and very specific forms of industrial engineering and design.

As their very name suggests universities were never so designated –– apprenticeship, internships and in-house training being far more cost effective and adaptive to changing circumstances.

With the exceptions of long-term basics that are inherently “practical” and with clear positive social outcomes (languages, economics, science, engineering, law and medicine in particular), shifting more work-oriented training to business or public sector systems reduces tax burdens on the population at large, including the taxation of those whose children do not attend higher education.

Second, forcing students to study subjects they are not good at, or attracted to, will create a high proportion of graduates in engineering, accountancy or business studies, who either do not take up jobs in those areas or who secure such jobs, but perform below the existing standards.

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