In 2000, the number of live births in Taiwan was 305,312. That figure declined to 260,354 the year after and 247,530 the next, a drop of 57,782 in two years — a significant decline. As those who were born in 2001 and 2002 finish senior-high school this year and next, universities face a critical enrollment challenge.
After the registration period for the General Scholastic Ability Test closed not long ago, the College Entrance Examination Center said that the number of registrants dropped by more than 5,000 compared with the previous test. Although registration for the Technological and Vocational Education Entrance Examination is still open, the number of registrants is expected to shrink significantly for that as well.
As higher-education institutions face their first major drop in student numbers, what countermeasures have universities and the Ministry of Education planned to alleviate the situation?
On the assumption that enrollment would drop by 25,000 next year, for every university that enrolls 1,000 students, there will be 25 that are unable to enroll any at all. At the very least, every institution will enroll fewer students, with some affected worse than others.
In particular, less-prestigious private universities in more remote areas are at a loss over what to do.
Private institutions are constantly calling on public ones to reduce their enrollment numbers, but as there are only 45 national universities — which is less than half of the more than 100 private universities nationwide — it would be difficult to solve the problem by reducing enrollment numbers at public institutions. Besides, enrollment numbers have already been approved by the ministry.
As the Chinese saying goes: “A slow remedy cannot do much to solve an urgent problem.”
Private universities used to be able to expand their rolls by attracting Chinese students, but due to cross-strait tensions, that is no longer an option.
In compliance with the government’s New Southbound Policy, private institutions have instead turned to Southeast Asian nations in their search.
As many students from this region are economically disadvantaged, it would be better if they could study and work at the same time, which would help alleviate the nation’s labor shortage.
However, the hypocritical government imposes strict controls on the working status of foreign students, complicating things for education providers and companies. As a result, the supply of students from Southeast Asia is limited.
This was a good policy at the outset, as factories were able to find workers, institutions were able to recruit students, and students were able to study and obtain diplomas. With reasonable regulations, all parties could benefit.
Today, many private universities are operating at a loss, but are still unwilling to dissolve and liquidate.
Article 74 of the Private School Act (私立學校法) says: Unless the corporate entity “is merged, the property remaining after it dissolves and liquidates shall by no means be handed over to natural persons or for-profit organizations.”
The law also states that the property can only be “donated to public schools or juridical persons engaged in educational, cultural or social welfare undertakings” per the board’s resolution and the corporate entity’s approval, or handed over the city or county in which the corporate entity is located.
Closing down a private university is of no benefit to anyone, so there is no incentive for a board of directors to do so. If an institute were to donate its assets to other public schools or social welfare groups, they could become a “hot potato” due to the complex relationship between obligations and creditors’ rights, not to mention retrenchments and severance pay for faculty, as well as the transfer of students.
The result is that the ministry and university boards procrastinate. This is exactly why a bill on private university and college dissolution remains stuck between the Executive Yuan and the Legislative Yuan.
Higher education in Taiwan faces a perfect storm created by a low birthrate and everyone will be affected. No one can guarantee that the nation’s universities and colleges will survive, as it is hard to find a safe route through stormy seas. Will the government at least be able to come up with a rescue plan after the storm passes?
Chang Ruay-shiung is the president of National Taipei University of Business.
Translated by Eddy Chang
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