There has been much debate over how to cure Taiwan of its current economic malaise. One topic that has not yet received sufficient attention is the constraints placed upon higher education.
The causal relationship between talent outflows and falling incomes is hardly news, but the problem is that it is not just professionals seeking higher salaries overseas; graduates are now putting off looking for a job at home.
Worried about what they are hearing about domestic opportunities, Taiwanese are abandoning ship and jostling for placements abroad to further their studies.
The systemic problem of Taiwan’s professional jobs market is pushing young Taiwanese to go overseas to study.
According to a report on salaries and benefits in the Asia-Pacific region published last year by a management consulting company, senior management in Taiwan command less than half of what they could expect to be paid in Singapore, and 70 percent of what they would get in Beijing.
The problem does not stem from a lack of outstanding teaching staff in Taiwanese universities, so why are teaching and research staff of the caliber to be found in Taiwan’s teaching institutions seemingly unable to champion higher education in the nation, to bring about a change in the country’s economic fortunes, promote industrial development, cultivate talent and increase Taiwan’s competitiveness?
The answer is that the Ministry of Education is strangling the development of universities at almost every turn and at every level, from departmental evaluations, the hiring and promotion of teaching staff to student enrollment and tuition fees.
The ministry’s preoccupation with clamping down on corruption and other shenanigans in universities has created a moribund culture of gray socialism in which nobody is expected to stand out and where ambition is discouraged. There is a systemic apathy that is stifling talent.
Let us look at cooperation between industry and academia, and at business incubation centers. Here, universities operate as bases for basic research and knowledge hatcheries. Knowledge transfer is increasingly regarded as the third function that universities perform, supplementing the more traditional roles of teaching and research. Many of the world’s internationally renowned universities now encourage commercialization and application within the wider society of research findings and specialist knowledge, in the interests of meeting the demands of increasingly multicultural communities and improving people’s quality of life over the long term.
A few years ago, the Hong Kong government allocated resources to universities to promote knowledge transfer to bring ideas and innovation down from the ivory towers of academia so they could both benefit a larger group of people while generating extra revenue for the universities.
However, in Taiwan, there are so many restrictions on knowledge transfer, making it difficult to apply research findings within the wider society, or getting them to generate profits that could reduce universities’ reliance on the state budget.
Higher education is a cradle for cultivating talent, an incubator for a creative economy. Unfortunately, Taiwan’s higher education is hostage to excessive bureaucracy. Staff suffer from low morale and research findings hardly ever see the light of day. Taiwanese higher education is in dire need of thorough reform. After all, if higher education remains in its current state, how is it to help the economy lift itself out of the doldrums?
Jason Yeh is an associate professor of finance at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Translated by Paul Cooper