Universities lag behind in English

By Peter Osborne  / 

Mon, Feb 18, 2013 - Page 8

My friend’s son is studying hard, his Mandarin Chinese is fluent, his English near perfect. In our conversations he seems surprisingly worldly and knowledgeable despite his young age. He expects to continue his education in the US. He is not an undergraduate from a Taiwanese university, but a high school student at international school in Taipei.

Even though he is younger, his abilities are more international than the majority of Taiwanese university students I have taught. I doubt that this is because he is smarter.

Many of the university students I have taught have been very intelligent young people. The difference derives from the education he has received to date.

Taiwanese universities have a problem of international relevance. It is not a problem of insufficient official legislation encouraging internationalization of staff and curriculum.

It is a reluctance of university departments to act seriously on directives of the Ministry of Education (MOE). Taiwanese university departments are remarkably non-international environments. Globally universities are ranked by performance every year. Ranking is a multifactorial assessment that attempts to standardize educational performance across national differences.

Assessment is not without controversy, but it is accepted as an accurate index of a university’s educational prowess. University ranking systems have a component including the percentage of non-national staff and students.

The notion is that cultural diversity of staff is correlated with intellectual diversity, which, if you are in the business of research and education of tomorrows leaders, is a valuable resource.

Only Taiwan National University (NTU) consistently ranks in the top 200 universities in the world. The vast majority of Taiwanese universities fail to achieve any international rank. Along with modest academic performance, what is common to all Taiwanese universities is the low percentage of foreign staff, less than 2 percent. Ten percent is considered an acceptable level.

An analysis of this existing 2 percent demonstrates that the vast majority of these non-national staff are employed as fixed-term contracted English language lecturers. On the scale of political influence in a department, a lecturer has about a 2 percent chance of influencing the attitudes or curriculum of a department. In non-English language university departments, the bulk of the scholastics sandwich, the number of foreign appointees is miniscule.

In any department, the real political power required to influence attitudes or curriculum comes from political alliances at the professorial level, with associate professors having some effect.

Assistant professors are mostly politically and administratively inexperienced recent graduates from overseas institutions who are struggling to adjust to the pressures of returning from resource-enriched, foreign meritocracy to the Taiwanese hierarchical bureaucracy. They are largely a voiceless majority in the “don’t rock if you know what is good for your future,” political boat.

There is no political or international diversity within departments. I can estimate that on the east coast of Taiwan there is not one native English-speaking, non-Taiwanese born, full professor in any university department, in any university that administers to the 18,000 plus tertiary students of the region. This “status quo” is common to all but the highest ranking of the nation’s universities.

Taiwan’s universities are monocultures that on paper aspire to internationalization of staff and ideas. However, in practice, their employment records show that they shy away from employing highly qualified international staff, especially at the level of full professor, who might have a real chance of initiating reforms.

Paradoxically, despite the ministry’s directives calling for all tertiary students to be taught in English, the reason offered against employing internationally competitive, non-Chinese speaking nationals, is that the English-language ability of Taiwanese students is too low for the university to get value for money.

This demonstrates the static ideology underpinning current university pedagogy and disregards that the literature, science and math education of Taiwanese high school students is consistently better than students from England, the US, Australia and Canada when tested by Programs for International Student Assessment.

So what is the problem? The problem is that the bulk of Taiwanese tertiary students lack educational environments that force, demand, encourage and reward them for using English in all subjects.

International high schools can do it. So why not universities? To do so would require a shake up of a very entrenched system. Rather than step up to the challenge and restructure educational institutes, it is far easier to just blame the students. “If our students were better we could do this, but …”

Taiwanese students are worthy of being educated for the needs of the future, not the present. It is difficult to predict what subjects will be required for the future, but as the interconnectivity of the world increases it is a safe bet that the future is one of a bilingual English-Chinese Asia.

Does society or the individual benefit from a costly tertiary education if it limits the vast majority of the nation’s graduates to only half the cultural or employment opportunities of the future? The most telling index of the performance of Taiwan’s universities can be found by talking to Taiwanese university professors.

Ask them, where do their children go to university or graduate school ? If they do not go to NTU, they are almost certainly educated in English-speaking universities overseas. What do professors with children recognize about the international relevance of a Taiwanese tertiary education that most parents do not?

Peter Osborne is a researcher in Taiwan.