Many university professors have been writing letters to newspapers to express their frustration with the poor performance of their students. This is a result of the excessive number of universities that have been established under earlier educational reforms.
When there were fewer universities, a minimum level could be set for the joint entrance exam in order to guarantee that university entrants had reached a certain level. This is no longer possible, so it is not surprising that professors are frustrated.
It is unlikely that their demands of students are too high; they probably do not go any further than demanding that students should possess a basic level of knowledge. If they do not come in with this level of knowledge, there is not much a professor can do.
This is not a new phenomenon, but it has been exacerbated by the establishment of so many universities amid declining birthrates. The question is: Why do so many students perform poorly?
The answer is quite simple: In the past, the focus has been on the best students in the hope of training the next Nobel laureate. Low-performing students were ignored because no one paid any attention to students that would not be accepted into university. Education reform focused attention on this neglect and its existence must not be denied.
However, if the education levels of students are too low, national competitiveness will suffer. Taiwan is becoming increasingly advanced and many jobs require a minimum education level. Many factory machine operators, for example, must have a basic knowledge of English and technical personnel cannot be ignorant of mathematics. The levels of low-performing students must be raised, because not doing so will have a negative impact on national competitiveness.
There is one issue in particular that must be carefully studied: Why can Taiwanese students not achieve even basic knowledge?
Once again, the answer is simple: The educational system pays no attention to basic abilities and there are no tests to ascertain whether students have obtained them.
Take English language learning as an example. Different forms of the verb “be” include am, is and are. Although knowledge of the rules governing such conjugation is fundamental to learning English, school entrance exams are unlikely to test for this knowledge.
Another example is knowledge of the present and present continuous tenses, which is also fundamental and something that any student of English must master. Still students will construct sentences such as: “Are she do homework every day?” or “Does she be a girl?”
Why does this happen? When I once asked a group of professors that question, they all started laughing. Their unanimous conclusion was that such questions are unlikely to be included in an entrance exam, and since they are not going to be in a test, teachers will ignore them and may not demand that students construct such sentences correctly. In other words, getting these sentences wrong is of no significance because they will not be included in future tests.
We must find ways to elevate the performance of students in basic skills. The education system must be solid and require that students have a firm grasp of fundamental knowledge. If all students, regardless of their percieved potential, can achieve a good level of education, national competitiveness is sure to improve.
Lee Chia-tung is an honorary professor at National Tsing Hua University.
Translated by Perry Svensson