Education must find its direction

By Ian Inkster 音雅恩  / 

Wed, Jan 09, 2013 - Page 8

In a generally well-considered New Year’s Day address entitled “Taking Strong Action to Redirect Our Future,” President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) made comments on the future direction of higher education. In light of recent events this poses some queries.

For Ma, the third of four challenges facing Taiwan “is the clear mismatch between students training and what industry actually requires. For a long time, universities here have developed rapidly without achieving the close link that should exist between academia and employment. This needs to change or it will affect Taiwan’s future development.”

Ma has a point if he is sticking firmly to the encouragement of high-level research and development partnerships between private industry and public educational and research centers, but the educational budget will then be feeding private enterprise profits. Certainly all governments should foster such linkages.

However, application and vocationalism should not become a basis for fundamental educational reform, especially when suggestions from last year (promises about increases in the education budget, reduced class sizes and raising fees paid to mentor teachers) seem to now be in abeyance.

Again, we can understand, but still be critical of Ma’s idea that we should “eliminate the wrong-headed idea that all universities should, by default, aim to secure a world ranking and publish research papers in academic journals ... they must maintain close connections with society and help build ties between academia, research institutes, and industry to fulfill their responsibility to lead society.”

There is no reason universities should lead this process. Industry gets the universities it deserves. If enterprise is truly enterprising then universities will respond and adopt research project leadership.

Silicon Valley in the US can offer a lesson. A great university (Stanford) already existed alongside a thriving old-style electronics industry. The early linkages were two-way and government followed rather than led the process. Stanford was a general, liberal-arts and world-level academic institution pursuing high level work along many lines primarily for academic intent.

There are many reasons why Ma is wrong in selecting an industry driven education system as the major focus for higher education, but there are four generic points, common at least to all democratic nations, that show how his premise should be rejected.

First, universities are not especially good at training directly for business or the public sector, especially “narrow-gate” training in business and very specific forms of industrial engineering and design.

As their very name suggests universities were never so designated –– apprenticeship, internships and in-house training being far more cost effective and adaptive to changing circumstances.

With the exceptions of long-term basics that are inherently “practical” and with clear positive social outcomes (languages, economics, science, engineering, law and medicine in particular), shifting more work-oriented training to business or public sector systems reduces tax burdens on the population at large, including the taxation of those whose children do not attend higher education.

Second, forcing students to study subjects they are not good at, or attracted to, will create a high proportion of graduates in engineering, accountancy or business studies, who either do not take up jobs in those areas or who secure such jobs, but perform below the existing standards.

This reduces the educational sectors economic contribution and producing a generation of disgruntled graduates working below par and not reaching their own expectations.

Third, such considerations ignore the value of higher education and that happiness and creativity in employment yields good citizens and better family environments than an inducement of lifestyles that are not conducive to social efficiency.

All democratic nations at present are administered, guided, and interconnected by graduates who studied subjects outside the narrow practical training that Ma appears to be promoting.

In particular, successful societies can boast large numbers of creative teachers who imbue their students with direct notions of civil society, good behavior, but and notions of critical prowess and personal fulfillment that are often the genesis of new knowledge and technical applications.

For democratic systems as a whole, technological creativity is no more a result of specific training than is artistic creativity.

Finally, history shows that the most highly productive economies are ones that encourage freedom in educational choice, encourage good teachers in energetic settings, promote innovation across educational disciplines and produce graduates that find employment in fast-growing cultural industries such as the media, tourism and all forms of gainful interaction with foreign nations, from fine arts to new designs for information technologies.

All of this promotes economic growth and efficiency as well as less measurable social outcomes.

Much can be attributed to accountants, urban planners, architects, small businesses, fine artists, historians, curators and archivists, who give vibrance to our busy urban world, which would be lost in their absence.

Nations whose governments have attempted to force narrow-gate education upon youth have generally been failing systems, or on the brink of catastrophe. They have rarely been democratic: For example, the fascist nations of the early 20th century.

Japan, which after the great early debates on liberal education led by thinkers like Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835-1901) also chose to combine a narrow-gate system of education, militarism and imperialism from the 1890s.

Such nations were good at military and technical education, but hopeless at civil organization, ultimately failing.

So too in Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) China, where disobedient students were imprisoned and professors purged in the name of ideologies spurred by the need for technological and military modernization.

Except for laying down basic infrastructures, every aspect of that Mao program failed, and China still struggles to free itself from this legacy in the name of economic liberalism and modernization.

The present Islamic upsurge, and the reasons for the limited outcome of the Arab Spring, are surely linked to the insistence of many Islamic leaders that religious doctrine must be the basis of educational systems, excluding any other ideas or ideologies.

This does not lead to healthy democracy.

There are one or two worrying elements in the political timing and context of Ma’s speech.

For the first time in years Taiwanese students are demonstrating and making political arguments about issues that are not immediately concerned with their own welfare. Following weeks of dissent, on New Year’s Day about 1,000 students staged a sit-in protest against media monopolization on Ketagalan Boulevard, in front of the Presidential Office. This was only the tip of a vast social networking iceberg of student culture.

It is not clear what sparked Ma’s new emphasis in such a major speech. Certainly there is nothing obviously wrong with the Taiwanese education system as a factor in economic development.

The brain drain of the last years — which has seen perhaps 80 percent of Taiwanese graduates in the US not returning — surely measures oversupply rather than the reverse. Overall Taiwanese growth waits more on world recovery than on technological innovation in industry.

We can only hope that this new student activism has not triggered Ma and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) to try to dampen liberalism and maximize instrumentalism in our educational system.

The earlier reaction of the Ministry of Education to the student protestors — that university administrators should investigate such students — was entirely inappropriate. It must be hoped that it will not cause a new wave of repression by the KMT.

Ian Inkster is a professor of global history at Wenzao Ursuline College of Languages.