Editorial: Chinese degrees no use to Taiwan

Mon, Aug 23, 2004 - Page 8

Just in case we were in doubt as to what "loving your country" means, the Great Jogger gave us all a little homily on that topic Saturday as part of his proposal that the nation recognize Chinese university degrees. To which the only appropriate reaction is to ask, in the mode of former East German spymaster Markus Wolf, which country is it exactly that this man claims to love?

Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) said that when trying to decide whether something is done out of love for the country or in an attempt to harm it, one must look at whether the policies are beneficial or detrimental and should not resort to formalistic ideological bickering. In short, he was echoing the words of his role model in advising us to "seek truth from facts."

One wonders what is meant by formalistic ideology here. The best example that we can think of is the concept that Taiwan has to unify with China come what may, which Ma's allies and backers in Beijing were reprising over the weekend.

But what Ma seems to be saying is that we should ask of any policy not, "Does this conform to our ideological principles?" but instead "Is it any use? Will it actually do any good?" So, in the case of recognizing Chinese university degrees, will it?

Even the laziest of thinkers -- Ma, for instance -- should be aware of the three most important issues. The first is that Taiwan already has a glut of tertiary education places. After the huge expansion of universities in the mid-1990s -- which followed England's disastrous example of calling every twopenny technical college a university because "distinctions are artificial" -- there are now more places than there are students. The result is severe competition among universities for students, less money for institutions to spend, and a lowering of standards all around.

Into this mix Ma wants to introduce Chinese universities. These have become the last resort for those unable to get into universities here. Their entry standards are lower and they are far cheaper than studying anywhere else abroad. With Taiwan's tertiary educational sector is already in crisis, it is hard to see why even more competition should be a good thing.

A second consideration is the quality of Chinese degrees. China has over 1,000 tertiary education facilities granting degrees. It is fair to suppose they are not all of a uniform standard. And given that the current tertiary education system has been in existence for less than 25 years -- having previously been destroyed with the closing of universities during the Cultural Revolution -- it is certainly valid to question what the standards of these various institutions might be.

The only way to answer this would be for assessors appointed by Taiwan's Ministry of Education to go to China, visit each institution, talk to faculty, staff and students, wade through research theses, and try to get a grasp of whether standards at the Harbin University of Commerce, for example, are comparable with those of institutions in Taiwan. This kind of survey would take a long time and need cooperation from Beijing -- which so far has never been offered.

Finally, along with the standards issue, we might point out that university attendance in China still involves compulsory classes in China's loathsome politics. Ma says we allow people to study in the US; why not in China? To which one answer might be that Taiwanese students at US universities are not rigorously indoctrinated in a politics that is antithetic to the very survival of their country.

Perhaps this latter reason is a "formalistic" consideration. But the two prior ones are eminently practical; Taiwan's swift recognition of Chinese university degrees will do it no good at all. China, however, has much to gain, which gives us an interesting insight on which country Ma loves.