Mon, Feb 18, 2013 - Page 8 News List

Universities lag behind in English

By Peter Osborne

Taiwan’s universities are monocultures that on paper aspire to internationalization of staff and ideas. However, in practice, their employment records show that they shy away from employing highly qualified international staff, especially at the level of full professor, who might have a real chance of initiating reforms.

Paradoxically, despite the ministry’s directives calling for all tertiary students to be taught in English, the reason offered against employing internationally competitive, non-Chinese speaking nationals, is that the English-language ability of Taiwanese students is too low for the university to get value for money.

This demonstrates the static ideology underpinning current university pedagogy and disregards that the literature, science and math education of Taiwanese high school students is consistently better than students from England, the US, Australia and Canada when tested by Programs for International Student Assessment.

So what is the problem? The problem is that the bulk of Taiwanese tertiary students lack educational environments that force, demand, encourage and reward them for using English in all subjects.

International high schools can do it. So why not universities? To do so would require a shake up of a very entrenched system. Rather than step up to the challenge and restructure educational institutes, it is far easier to just blame the students. “If our students were better we could do this, but …”

Taiwanese students are worthy of being educated for the needs of the future, not the present. It is difficult to predict what subjects will be required for the future, but as the interconnectivity of the world increases it is a safe bet that the future is one of a bilingual English-Chinese Asia.

Does society or the individual benefit from a costly tertiary education if it limits the vast majority of the nation’s graduates to only half the cultural or employment opportunities of the future? The most telling index of the performance of Taiwan’s universities can be found by talking to Taiwanese university professors.

Ask them, where do their children go to university or graduate school ? If they do not go to NTU, they are almost certainly educated in English-speaking universities overseas. What do professors with children recognize about the international relevance of a Taiwanese tertiary education that most parents do not?

Peter Osborne is a researcher in Taiwan.

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