Last year, the Ministry of Education established an evaluation mechanism for institutions of higher education in Taiwan. This was a brave and unprecedented move that, when implemented, will have far-reaching influence on the future development of Taiwan's higher education. Nonetheless, the merit of the new system is open to question.
During the review process, the ministry will commission personnel from different disciplines to evaluate the academic performance of departments in each institution. The results will be one of three grades -- "pass," "further observation" and "fail." Institutions failing to pass the criteria will be ordered to suspend their recruitment of students, a fairly serious measure.
The advantage of this kind of evaluation mechanism is that it can demonstrate results and eliminate "slothful" schools from the list of institutions of higher learning, prompting the academic world to pursue higher goals. Following the announcement of the evaluation mechanism, institutions of higher education have begun to adopt a proactive attitude towards their management of school affairs.
However, there are also many hidden problems with the review mechanism. Many colleges and universities have begun to focus on quick achievements while departments hold highly visible fund-raising activities and con-ferences. College professors have become focused on creating alliances or partnerships to exert their clout in the academic circles. Although such practices can create quick results, the number of professors is limited. If they continue to focus their attention on activities other than academic work, then the scope of studies will shrink and research output will drop.
Maybe these are necessary evils and shallower academic work will have to be accepted. However, I wonder if this compulsory evaluation mechanism will become a barrier to the pursuit of true self-reflection and long-term improvement of academia.
The reason for this concern is that a few schools with a longer history and more prestige remain in an advantageous position since they have more professors and students than less influential schools. National universities with a long history enjoy more educational resources, and members of the evaluation committee may have already established close relationships with these schools. I predict that certain schools and departments will continue to enjoy an unshakable reputation.
We should note that these schools have been playing a leading role over the past five decades and could be held responsible for the lagging performance of Taiwan's advanced academic institutions. I wonder why there are no colleges or universities in Taiwan listed among the top 100 global universities and why they are even lagging behind universities in other neighboring Asian countries. In the first round of this elimination game, older universities will continue to escape censure, for they can always perform better than new universities with a later start.
Is this kind of university evaluation really of help to the nation's higher education system overall? Clearly, the current university evaluation system poses a threat to newly emerging universities, which now run the risk of being sacrificed for the sake of the national universities.
This was not the Ministry of Education's intent, but the results of these evaluations can now be predicted -- some new private universities and some newly established academic fields will be left by the wayside while the "authoritative status" of a small number of publicly funded universities will be perpetuated.
In fact, a good number of universities emerging over the past 15 years are privately financed universities.
Generally speaking, these universities are credited for some major contributions. First, they require less government educational funds than state-run universities. Second, they have a more clearly defined civic function in that they often promote continuing education at the local level. Third, some of the newer universities have begun to offer courses oriented toward localization. And finally, they are a gathering point for young academics who received their doctorates in Taiwan.
New private universities not only incur the least amount of social costs, they also fill an important civic function. They are a stabilizing force in Taiwan and trumpet the the ideas of "small is beautiful" and "exquisite creativity." This offers new hope for Taiwan's academia. Now that these universities are just beginning to find solid ground, they are suddenly faced with a life-and-death challenge and this is highly regrettable.
The implementation of our nation's education policies has encountered a lot of difficulties in recent years. Ten years of education reform only resulted in a burgeoning number of cram schools, and a lot of educators claim that the reforms are a failure.
Nor has the teacher training policy been in step with society, which has resulted in an excessive number of unemployed teachers. At this time, the ministry has once again begun taking steps to overhaul the higher education system, and I question if it has given this latest round of change thorough consideration.
The new university evaluation mechanism is relevant to the development of Taiwan's higher education in the next few decades. The question of whether the new system will be successful must continue to be a matter of concern to the public and a topic of vigorous debate.
Wei Kuang-chu is an associate professor in the Research Institute of Art and Environmental Planning at Nanhua University.
Translated by Daniel Cheng and Lin Ya-ti