Closing the gap between schools

By Eric Wang 王釗洪  / 

Sat, Nov 03, 2012 - Page 8

Every year we see the same drama played out over the issue of university tuition fees. The plot is very familiar: First, universities say they are going to raise their fees, then public opinion comes out against it, and finally the Ministry of Education freezes the planned tuition hikes. This year the ministry has finally begun to see the light on this issue. Even if its first steps are faltering, at least it is a start.

A few days ago, newspapers reported that the ministry had come up with a draft proposal for regular adjustment of university tuition fees. The proposal is divided into two parts. The first part would allow national universities (state-run or public) to raise tuition fees by 10 percent for incoming freshmen next year, and by 5 percent for students in their second to fourth years of study. Private universities would be allowed to raise fees by a maximum of 5 percent for all students.

The second part of the proposal applies to all universities, both public and private, and is divided into two plans; A and B. Plan A would allow a maximum tuition increase of 5 percent to reflect changes in universities’ operating costs. Plan B is meant to reflect the quality of teaching. It requires schools to propose plans for improving teaching quality and would allow them to work out how much students should pay in tuition fees based on the running costs involved.

The most praiseworthy thing about these proposals is that they represent a new way of thinking that aims to narrow the difference in tuition fees charged by public and private universities. University education is not compulsory, so tuition fees should not merely reflect universities’ running costs, but also the quality of service provided. If the quality is good, students will be happy to pay a higher price. The most reputable universities around the world charge what at first sight appear to be very high fees, but their graduates are almost guaranteed to have a bright future. Taking that into consideration, these universities’ tuition fees seem much more reasonable.

Taiwan has had a longstanding distorted tuition fees policy, with the quality of teaching often inversely proportional to the fees charged by public and private universities. However, if the proposed policy is implemented and given time to take effect, then university education in Taiwan will be transformed from bland “vegetable noodles” into tasty “beef noodles” good enough to be served up in a five-star restaurant.

This transformation will be seen in at least two aspects. First, it will sharpen competition between public and private universities, and second, it will invigorate Taiwanese universities and prepare them to compete on an international level.

Since university education is not part of the compulsory education system, it is hard to understand why all taxpayers in the country should foot the bill for running “national” universities, and why they should be “protected” by holding down their tuition fees and subsidizing them through schemes like the Top Universities Project and the University Teaching Excellence Project.

In the business world, protectionism has been shown to have failed in promoting Taiwanese industry in the 1950s and 1960s, so it is hard to understand why this outmoded practice should continue be applied when it come to educational institutions. Ad hoc subsidies without complementary measures, like the Top Universities Plan and Teaching Excellence Plan, are especially wasteful. Apart from building campus walls, digging ditches and buying photocopier toner, it is hard to see any tangible benefits from these programs.

Protected as they are by the government, Taiwan’s national universities have grown rapidly over the years, and this has resulted in a sorry state of affairs. Many years ago, Nobel Prize laureate Lee Yuan-tseh (李遠哲) called for educational reform of Taiwan’s universities, suggesting that they could be modeled on California’s higher education system. California is a big state with plentiful resources. It is bigger and richer than many countries, and its population is bigger than Taiwan’s by 14 million people. Despite its size, California only has about 30 state-run institutions that have the title “university,” nine of which are research-oriented, and all of which are among the world’s most famous institutes of higher learning. Despite being much smaller than California, Taiwan has to support 50 national universities. Given the burden of feeding so many public universities, is it surprising if they are undernourished?

Under the current low tuition fee policy, Taiwanese students crowd into national universities. Most of these students choose to attend state-run institutions purely because of their low fees, not because they have any particular ambition. The worst thing is that, among Taiwan’s 50 national universities, while some department heads are worthy of praise, there are plenty of third and fourth-rate characters among them who sit around all day getting paid for doing nothing. They make no serious effort to raise donations and do not care about college governance. Some of them feel so secure in their guaranteed tenures that they are unperturbed when their departments fail to make the grade in academic evaluations.

In schools like this, morale on campus is low. Students think it is quite normal to sit in lectures eating their lunches and playing with their mobile phones. Only when they are nearing graduation and facing the ruthless world of work do they start to panic and turn to cram school classes. What kind of university education is that? Why should the state go on protecting this kind of B-grade national university? Why not just let them close down, or hand their management over to private enterprises or non-governmental organizations?

Meanwhile, there are plenty of private universities that have a good reputation and are enthusiastic about academic governance and teaching. These schools strive to excel, and they have made impressive achievements in areas such as cooperative education and internationalization. Their graduates’ employment prospects are good and their work performance is impressive. Universities like these have won support and praise from the public, but their big problem is that their hands are tied in terms of the fees they can charge and their style of administration.

If the ministry can succeed in narrowing the gap between the fees charged by public and private universities, and if it can gradually cut the subsidies paid to public universities over the years, while allowing private universities to adjust their fees and run things in their own way, many private universities will eventually be able to show their true worth. Many private institutions definitely have the potential to outshine those third and fourth-grade national universities.

Making reasonable adjustments to public university tuition fees is not a matter of exploiting students, and it would not be an obstacle to social mobility. For really talented students, there are plenty of scholarships on offer from renowned colleges in Taiwan and abroad. The problem lies with those students who only aim to muddle along under the protective umbrella of the low-fee system.

If Taiwan really wants to foster top world-class universities, it will have to take the key steps of removing the protections given to public universities and relaxing restrictions on private colleges. If it can eliminate poor-quality national universities and just keep the minority of “Taiwanese Berkeleys,” while encouraging and cultivating a few “Taiwanese Stanfords,” they can become the pride of the nation, and it would be good news for those students who have the ambition to excel.

We must decide: Do we want to savor “beef noodles,” or are we content to eat nothing but bland “vegetable noodles” forever?

Eric Wang is a professor of economics at National Chung Cheng University.

Translated by Julian Clegg