Universities face fight for survival

By Ben Wu 吳濟聰  / 

Mon, Jan 12, 2009 - Page 8

PROFESSOR PRUDENCE CHOU (周祝瑛) recently published an article about the need to improve the skills of our university students in tough economic times (“The power of questions for students in limbo,” Jan. 1, page 8). In her article, Chou said university teachers are required to do research and are pressured to obtain doctorates.

This means, Chou said, that students who need remedial teaching and career counseling from universities are let through the system because their teachers do not have enough time for them.

The result, Chou said, is that many students are unable to identify their strengths and career goals during their four years at university.

Although the government promised to improve retirement packages for teachers at private universities some time ago, some professors at prestigious private universities have opted to teach at public universities, while even more professors from private universities are getting ready to do the same.

However, the majority of people are unaware that aside from those universities that are considered “low-quality universities,” a lot of universities that are heavily involved in Taiwan’s Teaching Excellence Programs (教學卓越計畫) are also plagued by the same problems.

Both private universities and our government have an equal responsibility in improving education in Taiwan. Shouldn’t a government that emphasizes education help private universities in achieving their goals of improving education? Aren’t the problems private universities are facing serious?

Private universities are facing serious problems — problems that cannot be solved overnight. In the past, teachers at private universities could spend the majority of their time teaching. Even with the discrepancies in salary and retirement packages between private and public universities, this fact was one factor that helped them attract teachers.

However, the uniform appraisal and promotion systems that have been implemented in recent years have had a heavy impact on these schools. The standards for the appraisal and promotion systems are supposed to be a combination of factors such as teaching, service and academia.

In reality, however, academic performance is the primary criteria of these systems. This means that teachers at private universities must devote more time on research and spend less on teaching and career counseling.

Such a situation makes many teachers ask themselves why they should stay at private universities with relatively lower salaries and retirement packages when they are performing almost the same duties as they would at public universities.

Because of a large drop in the birthrate and the limitations placed on the competitiveness of private universities by the uniform appraisal and promotion systems, teachers there worry that if they do not take the opportunity to leave private institutions now, they will be left with nothing in the event that their universities close down.

Therefore, over time, teachers at private universities began emphasizing academic performance in preparation for going to teach at public universities. This affects teaching at private universities because teachers are not as devoted to teaching as they were before.

There is a large gap between tuition fees at private universities in Taiwan and China. Secondly, China already has too many university students and those who do choose to come to Taiwan to study would choose universities that have better reputations, otherwise they would have no chance of finding jobs after returning to China.

Private universities with better finances have come up with ways to lower the gaps in salaries and retirement packages for teachers. Universities that have not been able to make adjustments to their systems are losing their teachers and face other pressures from problems related to salaries, retirement packages and a drop in the number of students. If these universities are unable to obtain financial assistance, they will have to either shut down or lay off employees, with tuition fees being controlled by the Ministry of Education. Employees with a competitive advantage will leave these universities before they lose their jobs, which will only exacerbate the problems.

The first way in which these problems can be resolved is to make our universities more liberal and diverse. The uniform appraisal and promotion systems have to be discontinued, universities must be allowed to find their own competitive advantages and not be forced to emphasize research only. Also, the government should allow foreign universities to invest in or acquire private universities.

The second way in which these problems can be resolved is to discontinue the fee control policies at private universities. Universities are no longer oligopolies and students have a wide range of choices in terms of where they seek higher education. Well-known universities such as Harvard charge extraordinarily high fees, however, because these universities have their own competitive advantages and students are not put off by their higher fees. Private universities in Taiwan should be allowed to develop their own competitive advantages.

If the government keeps ignoring this problem, we could very well witness a wave of private universities closing their doors in the next few years.

Ben Wu is an assistant professor in the Department of Information Management at Fujen Catholic University.