Fri, Sep 13, 2013 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan should be proud of its universities

By Stephen Whitehead

This is an age obsessed with performance measures and rankings. Everything and everyone is subject to some type of externally applied, so-called objective assessment of value and quality.

What are the top five mobile phones? What are the 10 most popular films? What are the top 10 restaurants in Taipei?

Therefore, it is no surprise that universities also get ranked.

The highly respected QS World 500 University Rankings for this year have been published. It is fascinating to discover which universities are considered “world class.” British and North American universities dominate, but what about Asian universities?

It is surprising to learn which Asian country tops this year’s rankings: It is Taiwan.

Taiwan now has 10 universities in the top 500. Not bad for a country barely 50 years old and with a population of 23 million. By comparison, South Korea has 10 universities in the top 500, but with double the population of Taiwan; Japan has 16, but with five times the population; China has 17, but with 50 times the population. Malaysia, a country with a similar population to Taiwan, has just five universities in the top 500.

Taiwan’s higher education system is a success story by any measure — it is certainly now punching above its weight. Why might this be? Perhaps a clue is contained in the city of Taipei.

Taipei is not the most exotic city in Asia, nor is it the most exciting and it certainly is not on most travelers’ destination wishlists. Taipei may be an underestimated city, but it is the best in Asia.

What measures am I, a British university professor, applying in order to make this subjective assessment?

Taipei has all the characteristics of a top university. It is organized, ambitious, smart, innovative, technological, adaptive, sophisticated, secular and inhabited by very intelligent people. Taipei works perfectly, as must any organization if it is to succeed, including a university.

I have been observing the nation’s universities’ rapid climb in the rankings for years — last year Taiwan had seven universities in the top 500 — but what continues to surprise me is that Taiwan does not publicize this more. Whenever I tell Westerners that Taiwan has so many world class universities, I am invariably met with looks of incredulity.

Taiwan needs to shout about this success a little more loudly, so that the message is heard outside of Asia: Taiwan’s universities are up there with the best in the world.

Stephen Whitehead is a visiting professor of gender studies at Shih Hsin University.

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