Policies risk creating time bomb

By Tai Po-fen 戴伯芬  / 

Mon, Apr 22, 2013 - Page 8

In 1978, a mysterious figure who eventually came to be known as the university and airline bomber, or Unabomber, came into the spotlight in the US. This person initiated a bombing campaign by sending an intentionally wrongly addressed parcel bomb to Northwestern University that exploded and wounded the university police officer who opened it.

Between 1978 and 1995, a number of universities, airlines and other businesses across the US received a total of 16 bombs, which left three people dead and injured more than 20 others.

The search for this clandestine bomber was one of the most costly investigations in FBI history. In the end the culprit turned out to be Theodore Kaczynski, who had been a highly gifted student at Harvard University’s department of mathematics.

Kaczynski, who had an IQ of 167, finished his doctoral studies in a few months and went on teach at the University of California, Berkeley for two years.

He targeted his bombing campaign at scientists, engineers and other high-technology personnel, hoping to achieve human freedom and liberation by reversing scientific and technological progress.

On Monday last week, another bomb attack took place in the US, this time at the Boston Marathon. The explosions killed at least three people and injured more than 170, shattering limbs in a cloud of smoke.

At present, it seems that the bombing was the action of two individuals, and the tragedy has re-ignited long-term social tensions and caused a new wave of fear in US society.

By coincidence, Taiwan witnessed a bomb scare on a High Speed Rail train just three days before the Boston Marathon bombing. Police have arrested two suspects, but regardless of whether they are responsible, this is not the first such incident in Taiwan.

In 1992, bombs exploded at branches of McDonald’s. The culprit, Chen Hsi-chieh (陳希杰), used dynamite in a attempt to extort money from the company.

From 2003 to 2004, Yang Ju-men (楊儒門), known as the “rice bomber,” planted explosives in various locations around Taipei on 17 occasions. His campaign was meant to highlight his demand for the government to pay more attention to the impact that deregulated rice imports were having on Taiwanese farmers.

No matter whether they were motivated by personal profit or social justice, what these bombers represent is the way in which discontent acts as a fuse that can ignite distorted social values. Besides causing injuries and deaths, bombs have an impact on basic social values and trust.

Recently, the gap between rich and poor in Taiwan has been widening. The government has failed to propose an effective welfare system to redistribute income, or to reduce the gap between the pensions for military personnel, civil servants and state school teachers on the one hand, and farmers and private sector workers on the other.

It has also failed to come up with effective social policies to stabilize surging housing and commodity prices.

While flaunting slogans about bringing house prices under control, the government hands over choice plots of state-owned land for speculation by big business. On the one hand it preaches about how education gives people a chance to change their social status, but on the other it quietly raises the economic threshold for entry into education, thus blocking students from equal access to learning.

Following last year’s twin price increases for gasoline and electricity, university fees are also set to increase. Education used to be the best path for moving between social classes, but it is now becoming a resource that is monopolized by the privileged, and a commodity for private schools for whom profit is the most important concern.

State-run universities, which take 90 percent of the resources available for higher education, and that were originally supposed to play a public role, are instead being given priority to raise their fees by 6 percent, along market-system lines.

Meanwhile, private colleges, which are allocated a mere 10 percent of the state’s resources — and are supposed to make up for inadequacies in education through a market system — are fettered by layer upon layer of policy restrictions, and will have to wait to adjust their fees upward by just 5 percent.

This arrangement fails to consider a rational distribution of educational resources between state-run and private schools, and instead merely takes fees as a reflection of costs as determined by GDP growth. It completely overlooks realities such as shrinking salaries and falling real household incomes.

The authorities are unwilling to confront the phenomenon of academic inflation or to think about how to solve the problems of youth unemployment and the new poor.

If the fee hike goes ahead according to this current plan, it will increase the burden that educational spending imposes on students who come from low-income families, and put students who worked so hard to pass the entrance exams for state-run universities deep into debt.

The state’s public policies do not promote social justice. On the contrary, they aggravate unfairness and injustice in society.

Today, students fall asleep in class because they have been working so hard to earn or borrow money to pay their school fees. People with doctorates sell fried chicken and college professors are forced to stand outside their campuses handing out leaflets to recruit students.

The intellectual elite that has been pushed into such dire straits may turn into a ticking social time bomb that could blow apart the lives of our educated youth.

Tai Po-fen is chairperson of the Taiwan Higher Education Union and a professor in the Department of Sociology at Fu Jen Catholic University.

Translated by Julian Clegg