Sun, Apr 26, 2015 - Page 12 News List

Taipei Watcher: Hawking a 7-Eleven education

The large number of higher education institutions has turned students into consumers and teachers into salespeople

By Eddy Chang  /  Staff reporter

A group of laid-off teachers protest in front of the Ministry of Education in mid-January, when they accused Yu Da University of Science and Technology of illegally firing over a dozen senior teachers.

Photo: Wu Po-hsuan, Taipei Times

If you were a university professor, what would you do if your students kept playing with their smartphones or tablets in class? Assistant professor Lin Wan-hua (林婉華) banned their use. And guess what? She was almost fired by Da-Yeh University (大葉大學) in Changhua County, where she has taught English at its International Language Center for 14 years.

STUDENTS AS CUSTOMERS

After banning electronic devices, Lin got into an argument with a student who refused to turn off his smartphone. The student later filed a complaint to the university. Surprisingly, the school allegedly threatened to dismiss Lin over the dispute.

According to a report in the Apple Daily (蘋果日報), the university told Lin not to return [for work] next week and give back her letter of appointment voluntarily. “Student satisfaction is our concern,” the school reportedly told her when suggesting that she resign.

The university apologized to Lin after she filed a complaint with the Taiwan Higher Education Union (高教工會), claiming that it did not force her to resign. Although the case came to an end on the surface, it highlighted a serious problem in Taiwan’s higher education.

“More and more universities are seeking profit, as if they are operating department stores, treating students as their customers and educators as their salespeople,” said professor Kuo Li-an (郭麗安) of National Changhua University of Education (彰師大), adding that having to ingratiate oneself with students can curb a teacher’s ideals and enthusiasm.

“Is this the kind of higher education that we want?” she asked, stressing that the Ministry of Education (MOE) should rein in the practice by setting up evaluations for universities.

THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS RIGHT

The cause of the problem is obvious: there are too many colleges and universities competing for too few students. No wonder most schools are treating students as customers.

Given this situation, more and more teachers are forced to curry favor with students to keep their jobs — because “the customer is always right.” Not to mention that their performance is directly graded by those picky “customers” at the end of each semester.

The problem originated in the 1990s under then president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), as the Cabinet’s Education Reform Committee (教改會), led by then Academia Sinica president Lee Yuan-tseh (李遠哲), urged the government to establish more universities because it was thought that this would boost the overall quality of Taiwan’s labor force. Politicians jumped on board because it attracted votes.

The situation got out of hand when then-president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) realized the campaign promise that there would be “one [public] university for each city and county” (一縣一大學). By 2007, the number of universities had ballooned to 164.

Today, there are still 159 universities in this country of 23 million, including graduate institutes offering 851 doctoral programs as well as 3,334 master’s programs. Some people joke that Taiwan has almost as many graduate programs as convenience stores.

And with the birthrate declining, some schools have barely been able to recruit enough students. Two private universities closed last year, and at least one is slated to close this year.

THE MOE’S PLAN

To prevent the situation from getting worse, the MOE proposed the Higher Education Innovative Transformation Program (高等教育創新轉型方案) on March 27, planning to merge or close eight to 12 of the 51 public universities and 20 to 40 of the 108 private universities in the nation by 2023.

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