Academics in Taiwan are paid less than those in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Macau, but it was still possible to attract talented professors with retirement benefits, higher social status and academic freedom.
Lecturers often said that if a pension was included, the benefits were not bad. As a result, young people who completed their doctorate overseas or people who wanted to work in Taiwan were willing to return and teach.
Recently, morale among academics has reached a low, mainly because of uncertainties surrounding pension reform and looming cuts to monthly pensions.
In the weeks before returning to school after the winter break, many academics are questioning what they will do when they retire.
Pensions are contracts between the government and teachers, and unless the fund is bankrupt, it will be very difficult to persuade academics without consultation that cuts are necessary.
When it comes to competition for talent between Taiwan and other nations, academia is an important group given its diversity and specialized division of labor. Academics rarely speak as a group in defense of their benefits and are even less likely to take to the streets in protest.
Not once have we seen a university teachers’ organization speak in protest during the pension reform process, and as a result, not the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Civil Service nor any other ministry has taken responsibility for the issue.
Neither the government nor universities have solicited the views of academics or discussed the issue with them, but now huge cuts in annual pension payments are being proposed without considering the special situation and expertise of the profession. There is a high threshold to becoming a professor and entering into this “group of disadvantaged voters.”
Most academics have studied for an additional eight to 10 years post-graduation for their doctorate and many have sacrificed family life and material comfort, which most people take for granted.
This becomes obvious when classmates retire from public office or teaching jobs at junior or senior-high schools, while academics have to continue working because they joined the work force at a later stage in life due to their further studies.
Nevertheless, while defining junior and senior-high school teachers as a special group in terms of pension reform, the education ministry neglects the rights of tens of thousands of academics and ignores the existing contract and pension plan, which is a source of resentment and feelings of abandonment among teachers, while it discourages prospective teachers.
Former Presidential Office secretary-general Lin Bih-jaw (林碧炤) said the salaries of academics are so low that many have to hold a second job to support their families. With cuts to their pensions, they are forced to take precautions and make preparations for their retirement.
The reform would have far-reaching repercussions in the academic world. In addition to the neglect and lack of respect from the education ministry and other authorities — which is a source of anxiety among academics — more talented academics are likely to be lured away and change jobs if the pension system is finalized according to the current proposal.
Many of the best science, engineering, business, legal, humanist and social sciences departments are no longer able to keep their academics, who are poached by schools overseas. In addition, they are unable to hire new lecturers as a result of longstanding low salaries, and the proposed pension reform is now making that even more difficult.
The education ministry’s White Paper on Human Resource Development, published in 2014, described the internationalization of Taiwan’s university education as a major challenge over the coming decade, but the direction of the current pension reform process does not give consideration to the special situation of the nation’s academics.
It is all but certain that this neglect will increase the outflow of Taiwanese academics that are internationally competitive while also causing talented potential academics to stop and think.
The question now is how Taiwan will respond to intense international competition for talented people.
Chuing Prudence Chou is a professor of education at National Chengchi University.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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